Proper 22a, October 8, 2017

October 9, 2017

God’s Employment Policy

Matthew 21:33-44


33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


Matthew labels this story Jesus tells as a parable, but it seems to function more like an allegory. Unlike a parable, which usually involves a familiar circumstance that goes off in a strange direction, an allegory is a story where the characters represent identifiable people. A parable is designed to disrupt your usual way of seeing and interpreting the world, while an allegory unmasks a truth in a manner that isn’t very hard to follow. A parable causes you to think while an allegory reminds you of something you probably already know.


The Gospel of Matthew seems to have been directed toward people who were familiar with the faith and history of Israel. The community that Matthew was addressing was wrestling with the issue of how Jesus fit in with the Jewish faith tradition, and this story serves as both an endorsement of what God had done through the people of Israel, and an indictment of the way in which Israel had been managed.


It’s not very hard to identify who the various characters in this story represent. The landowner is God, and the vineyard that the landowner established is Israel. The tenants of the vineyard are the various leaders of Israel who had put their own interests above God’s intentions, and those who came throughout time to collect the rent were the various prophets that were persecuted for their efforts to speak the truth. Of course the landowner’s son that was killed by the tenants represents Jesus, the killers were the various scribes, chief priests, and Pharisees who rejected Jesus, and the new tenants of the vineyard would be us, the church.


It wouldn’t have been hard for the religious executives of the day to see who was who in this story, and I’m sure they didn’t like it, but they didn’t choose to change their role in the story. Upon hearing this story they became even more determined to have Jesus arrested and killed. The story ends with the old tenants being put out and put to death in a miserable manner, which is suitable for the story, but not something for us to use maliciously. Jesus didn’t tell this story in order for us to become overly self-assured of our own Christian righteousness. In fact it’s important for us to take note of the detail about us being the new tenants – not the owners of the vineyard. We don’t have a deed to the property – we have been granted a lease, and God is no doubt paying attention to the way in which we manage the farm.


I like this story. I’m not saying I like all the details of this story. It’s a tough story to hear, and it’s actually sort of gruesome, but I don’t mind a gruesome tale when it makes a good point. I don’t like to watch gratuitous violence on television or in movies, but you can’t really watch television without seeing somebody getting killed, and I don’t mind watching a malicious character getting killed in a fitting manner.


Of course we’ve seen and heard too many stories of real-life death on television this week. I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t become desensitized to actual death by our over-exposure to dramatized death. It’s enough to make you want to turn it all off, but it’s also been gratifying to hear the stories of heroism that were exhibited by so many people in response to the terror that erupted in Las Vegas last Sunday night.


And on a side note, I’m the owner of guns and I have appreciation for guns, but I’ve come to feel that access to military-style assault weapons needs to be more controlled. I’m sorry to distract from what Jesus was talking about, but I can’t help but share my feelings about this. I totally understand the need for self-defense, and I support the right to have self-defensive weapons. I even understand the attraction to shooting powerful weapons, and I’m ok with providing access to those weapons in controlled settings, but nobody aught to be able to build up the kind of death-dealing arsenal that the shooter in Las Vegas had legally acquired. There may be something about this that I don’t understand, and I’m open to a debate about it, but I feel like we’ve got a gun problem that needs to be addressed in a significant way.


I don’t mean to distract you from what Jesus was wanting us to think about, but I think this is on all of our minds, and I just can’t keep from saying something about it.


Of course it’s a life and death issue that Jesus wants us to think about. Jesus told this story to illustrate what it looks like to live in a manner that embraces death and not life, and he doesn’t want us to make that mistake. He, more than anyone else, recognized that it’s possible for people who profess to love God to live in ways that offend God, and he doesn’t want us to do that. God has had some bad tenants of his vineyard, and we need to not do as they have done. If we want to remain as tenants of God’s good vineyard we need to know what God expects and to do the work that gives God pleasure.


This is a story that taps in to that vein of outrage that we probably all can find within ourselves when we hear of excessively bad behavior or perhaps even experience it. I know it’s easy for me to get infuriated by people who take advantage of situations to serve themselves.


When I was the associate pastor at Lakewood UMC we had the misfortune of hiring a new secretary who turned out to be a thief. She wasn’t there long enough to figure out how to steal large amounts of money, but she started taking money from a petty cash fund that I kept in my desk drawer. We had started a recycling program at the church, and every once in while this retired man and I would load up a trailer full of newspaper and take it to a local recycling plant. We’d get $15 or $20 dollars/trip and I would just put it and the receipts in a cash box in my drawer until I had a good collection and then I would add up the receipts and the cash and give it to the financial secretary. We had been doing that for a year or so and the money and the receipts always added up, until we hired a new secretary, and on more than one occasion the money didn’t match the receipts. The money wasn’t all gone, but a significant portion would be missing.


I became very suspicious of her. And then I became outraged. We had a fish fry for the youth program one weekend and I worked really hard on that event. I counted the money on that Monday morning and I guess I was tired and not sufficiently vigilant and I left the cash in my drawer when I went to lunch. When I came back there was $100 less than what I had counted that morning.


At that point I went on a mission to catch her in the act. I actually hid in my closet one day during lunch in hope of catching her looking through my drawer, but that didn’t work out – people kept coming in the office all morning. I didn’t want to spend every lunch in my closet so I bought a light activated alarm from Radio Shack. I put it in my cash box, and I left it on my desk one day during lunch. I had shared my suspicion with Doris the Financial Secretary, and her office was near mine, and I told her if she heard an alarm going off in my office she should take note of who was in there.


When I came in from lunch that afternoon Doris came in my office and she was sort of hyper-ventilating. She told me she had heard that alarm and then she had seen the secretary leaving my office. I thanked her for letting me know, and I proceeded to tell the senior minister that our secretary was a thief. He was newly appointed to the church, and we had only been working together for about a month. And after telling him what I had done he wasn’t sure if I was a nut or she was a thief.


He chose to trust me and he confronted her with the information I had given him. She acted offended by his accusation, but she called him at midnight that night and said she couldn’t work with people who didn’t trust her. By the next morning she had removed all of her stuff from her desk and we never saw her again.


I’ve got a short fuse when it comes to people stealing from the church. I think most decent people can get pretty activated by people who take advantage of godly institutions, and rightly so. Stealing money from a church is clearly a bad thing to do, but what isn’t so clear are the ways in which we aren’t so vigilant about the subtle ways we take advantage of God.


And when I say this I’m thinking more of what the Catholic church would label as sins of omission as opposed to sins of commission. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans: For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. There may be some obvious things that we do that are clearly offensive to God and hurtful to our neighbors, but I think it’s more likely that we harbor attitudes and habits that we don’t even know are ungodly and insensitive. There are ways in which we fail to do something good because we simply aren’t paying attention.


It’s too bad that you can’t buy a little alarm like the one I got from Radio Shack, but instead of going off whenever it’s exposed to light it would go off when we hide from the light.


Jesus didn’t just tell this story in order to reveal the excessive pride of the Jewish authorities. Jesus wanted to drill through the layers denial that we are capable of building up between us and the truth. He doesn’t want us to focus on the misguided tendencies of those who have come before us or even of the evil scoundrels of our day. Jesus wants us to live with keen awareness of ourselves. Jesus told this story in order for us to maintain a high level of alertness for how we might be less self-serving and more God-fearing.


This story portrays God as being capable of dealing with us in a harsh manner, but that isn’t the focus of this story. The intent of this story is to highlight the choices we make in how we live our lives, and there are clear consequences of the choices we make. There are ways of living that put us in touch with the very present kingdom of God, and there are ways of living that put us in touch with death. It’s not always so easy to see the ways in which we are choosing death over life, and that’s why Jesus told this story. He wants us to be alert, and to be good stewards of God’s beautiful vineyard.


We’ve been given a good deal, and by the grace of God we’ll maintain our end of the bargain.


Thanks be to God. Amen.




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