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Sermon, St. Timothy’s, October 5, 2014  by Rev. Alice Mindrum

Matthew 21:33-46

"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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance." So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"  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." 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'? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls." When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

In the name of God, Creator, Savior and Inspiration.  Amen.

Leander Keck, a former Dean at Yale Divinity School, is one of the finest New Testament scholars of our time.  One of his great gifts is his ability to put things simply and clearly, so, when he introduced the parables of Jesus to his New Testament classes, he would simply say, "A good parable is like a good joke. Either you get it, or you don’t."

It’s surprising, in the gospels, to see who actually does get the parables, and who doesn’t. The “regular” folk of Jesus’ day seemed to get the point a surprising amount of the time. They may have been people of limited education but clearly they loved Jesus’ teachings; they seemed to hang on every word and they kept coming back for more. The disciples, on the other hand, were sometimes embarrassingly slow on the uptake.  Often they sought out Jesus after he’d been speaking to the crowds, and asked him to give them a private explanation of a particular parable—which he usually did patiently, although once in a while not so much.

When we talk about “getting the parables” we can’t leave out the priests of the temple, the scribes and Pharisees, i.e., the professional religious scholars of the time. They heard lots of Jesus’ parables -- at first because they were curious, and perhaps also because, like the crowds and the disciples, they were fascinated by Jesus’ insights. Then, for at least some of them, fear and jealousy came into play, and eventually they were listening mostly to see if they could catch Jesus out in some misstatement. At which point Jesus responded by aiming some parables directly at them.  Remember our parable last week, in which the Temple authorities ask Jesus who gave him the authority to do the things he’s doing—meaning that he hasn’t received that authority from them.  And through a parable he points out to them that the ONLY authority which should reign supreme in the Temple is God’s; not theirs.  And they do “get it”, but they choose not to give it credence.  Instead, they become even more determined to get rid of Jesus. 

This all takes place—and today’s parable as well—on what we would call Holy Monday; the day after Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds.  The day after he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.  So it’s not a big surprise that the Temple authorities are suspicious and angry; they’re watching Jesus and they’re waiting to trip him up.  Jesus, seemingly unphased, simply tells another parable about a vineyard. 

There was a certain landowner, he says, who planted a vineyard, and put a fence around it to keep out the critters who might like to munch on grapes.  He also dug a wine press so that the grapes wouldn’t have to travel anywhere before being processed, and he even built a watchtower so that security guards could ensure the safety of his investment. This landowner has invested a great deal in his property and it’s a safe assumption that he’s hoping for a good return on his investment.  But then, he makes a fatal mistake; he leases out this very promising vineyard to some tenants who turn out to be greedy, rapacious and violent; and he himself, the landowner, thinking things are in good hands, he heads off to take care of business elsewhere.  But when harvest time rolls around and the owner sends some of his servants to collect the rentals that are due, instead of paying the owner’s representatives, the tenants seize them: they beat one, kill one, and stone a third.

The vineyard owner sends a second deputation of servants, but they’re treated in exactly the same way.  At which point the owner decides to send his son to the vineyard, reasoning that his son would be given more respect than his servants.  But instead, the tenants seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard his father owns--and then they kill him.  

At which point Jesus turns to his audience and asks, "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what do you think he’s going to do to those tenants?" And the answer given is: "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."  And finally, having said this, the penny drops, and the religious authorities realize Jesus is speaking about them as the ungrateful tenants of God’s vineyard; God’s world; God’s Temple.   But, in the true spirit of ungrateful tenants, instead of being ashamed and having a change of heart, the Temple authorities respond with anger and plans for revenge.  Later in the week, they will re-enact this parable; they will throw the son out of the vineyard—out of Jerusalem, outside of the city limits—and kill him on a hill called Golgotha.

They really didn’t “get it”, as Professor Keck would have said, because if they had, Holy Week might never have happened.   

It’s easy for us, in hindsight, to see where the Temple authorities went wrong.  But if we are true to the spirit of the gospels, now is when we’re meant to ask ourselves the crucial question: “What does this parable say to us, today?” 

As you’ll see next week, Jesus tells three parables, one after the other, in this section of Matthew.  Last week we talked about the parable of the workers in the vineyard; about whether they—and we—would respond to the call of the vineyard’s owner.  We imagined rolling up our sleeves and hitching up our trousers and shouldering our tools and diving in, for wherever we find ourselves, we’re in God’s vineyard, and there’s work to do.

But the issue in this second vineyard parable isn’t about workers not showing up when they say they will; it’s about workers who start to believe the vineyard belongs to THEM; it’s about forgetting who really DOES own the vineyard.  

Yesterday was the Feast Day of St. Francis, and as you know this afternoon at 4 we’re holding our annual “Blessing of the Animals” service.  The timing with this parable is good, because if anyone ever understood the concept of holding the earth and all creation in trust for God, caring for it, enjoying and being thankful for it, it was St. Francis.  

“Let everything the creator has made bless the Power creating still!” he wrote.  And he goes on to speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon; of Brother Wind, fair and stormy; of Summer and Winter, Spring and Fall, shaping and challenging all life”.  All of these are named with capital letters, as if they were close friends of his. And he ends by writing—still with capital letters--of “the living Earth, sovereign Mother feeding, flowering us--Let it all bless the Power creating still.”   

These writings reveal a holy man who was much more than just kind to animals.   St. Francis would have said that the very vines in the vineyard, and the earth around their roots, and the sun that shines upon them—all together they would sing and praise the name of what he wonderfully calls “the Power that is creating still.”

He got it.  He did not need for Jesus to remind him that we are tenants in the vineyard.  

I share this not to increase our already high anxiety about the earth of which we are stewards--about climate change or ebola or any of a hundred concerns about this planet—because unless you are very different from others that I know, you are anxious enough about these things already. 

But I share it to let St. Francis inspire us.  The joy in his words is so plain—whether looking at an insect or a rainbow, he is filled with songs of praise.  

Fall is upon us, and the leaves are turning.  And yes, undoubtedly snow is coming, a REASONABLE and moderate amount, I’m sure!  Imagine what glories St. Francis would have seen in the snowfall if he had ever experienced it in southern Italy; he would have seen the glories of the hand of God.  

May we see through his eyes, so that we, too, “get it.”  So that our careful stewardship flows naturally from our gratitude. So that we truly know and understand, as the psalm famously says, that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”  


"This is my Church." Lois Leftwich on St. Timothy's