A sermon on Matthew 21:33-46 & Isaiah 5:1-7 by Rev. Anne Wilkinson-Hayes
I have planted veggies for the first time this year. My tomatoes, beans and zucchini are doing wonderfully and I have the makings of an excellent ratatouille if my eggplants would thrive as well. However I have been waging a war over the eggplant seedlings. I have tended them lovingly – building windbreaks during the storms; watering them whenever it didn’t rain, and, against my preferred practice, I have resorted to building literal barricades of slug pellets around each one. Sadly I think that Australian slugs must have some kangaroo genes and can jump over my walls of pellets, because gradually the leafy little plants have been reduced to inch high stalks that mock me each time I go into the garden. I’ve lost the battle and I feel irritated and cheated.
I think this sense of grief begins, in a petty way, to touch on what Jesus is getting at in this passage. God has invested huge amounts of loving attention on his vineyard, and God has been cheated by people behaving like slugs. And maybe God is still cheated by us behaving like slugs.
This passage resonates with the story in Isaiah 5 that people in Jesus’ time would have been very familiar with:
Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard;
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines;
He built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it;
He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. Isaiah 5: 1-2
Jesus twists the ending of this familiar tale and talks about the landowner leaving the vineyard with tenant farmers. This time it is not that the vineyard is unable to produce good fruit, but rather that the tenants refuse to give the landowner his share of the crop. I’d have been happy if the slugs had left me just one eggplant, and taken the rest, but like the slugs, these guys wanted everything for themselves.
Now the classic understanding of this parable is that Jesus is telling the leaders of Israel that they have failed in their recognition of firstly the prophets and now the Messiah. They have responded to the challenges that these people of God have brought to them, not by changing their ways, but with violence and murder. And Matthew, in particular, stresses that now God’s vineyard will pass to another people – that is to the Gentiles who follow Jesus. And we, as those who have responded to Jesus, can rejoice in our new inheritance.
Well that’s certainly part of the story, but we can’t afford to be too smug in our identification with the good guys.
The context of this story is important, and it is pretty much the same in Mark. We’ve not been following the gospel readings recently so let me briefly recap on the story in chap 21. It starts with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, then overturning the tables in the temple and condemning the exploiters. He goes on to heal the sick and to receive the praises of children. Jesus is exhibiting all the characteristics of the Messiah, and the priests and leaders are cacking themselves. They try to question his authority, but he dodges their questions and replies with 2 parables. The first is about a classic family situation. The parent asks one child to do something and the first says ‘Yeah I’ll do it’ but doesn’t, and the second says ‘No way!’ But then feels bad and does it anyway. The first keeps up the appearance of behaving well, but doesn’t deliver. The second presents as a rogue, but does the right thing in the end.
And then Jesus tells our story, and it seems to me that the emphasis in this whole section is on how we behave. Jesus models Godly living – humility, justice, care for the sick and the little ones, and then questions how we live and behave. Do we just talk the talk, or walk the walk? How do we behave when the crunch comes – slug-like or Christ-like?
Alan and Eleanor Kreider, Mennonites who were over here for the School of Ministry in July, use a phrase that is to do with re-training our reflexes, so that our automatic response becomes that of Christ. This recognizes that doing the right thing does not come naturally, but its an act of will; it has to be intentional. We have to intentionally discipline and retrain our speaking, our acting, our reacting so that we become more Christ-like.
As I go round the churches I fear that we have succumbed to a heresy that has to do with avoiding having to do the work to change ourselves. It seems as if people in churches today think that if we sing enough songs, or do enough bible studies somehow God will change us, and we will become better people simply by being in a Christian environment, doing Christian things. And the result all too often is a people who are deeply committed yet who treat each other appallingly. In our case, there may be a temptation to think that we can build a church on beautiful liturgy, and that by faithfully rehearsing thoughtful, profound words, we will be better people. There is truth in this – as we approach the heart of God and look into the face of Christ we are changed, but as with all heresy, its not the whole truth. The part we don’t like is that we need the act of will to change; the self-discipline; the re-training of our reflexes that so often let us down. We say each morning “May your grace, combined with our sincere effort…”.
We have to bear good grapes – the fruits of the kingdom, and give God the rightful share of our lives, and that can be costly.
Jesus does not criticize the Jewish leaders for their lack of religious devotion, or for their worship, but he does constantly ask questions about how their faith affects their behaviour; their priorities and their openness to change and new possibilities. In this passage, he points them to the verse in Psalm 118 – about how people so often reject something as worthless that turns out to be the cornerstone of a new future.
And I think that that is the question for us. It’s easy to nod sagely when we hear that the people of Israel were unable to respond to the prophets God sent to them, but do we keep failing to recognise the messengers of God who come to us today?
When new possibilities of change are opened to us, do we simply beat them up because we’re scared?
When love is offered, do we respond with fear and mistrust?
When there is a challenge to a different way of living, do we respond violently for fear of failing again?
Our reflexes are often trained to reject, rather than to embrace. Our reflexes are often to criticise rather that encourage, to justify rather than to repent, to judge rather than to accept, and we need to work on them and re-train them if we are to bear the fruits of the Kingdom.
We have been indoctrinated by the Reformation text that we are saved through faith, but it seems to me that Jesus is more concerned with how we behave than with what we believe. Our faith is birthed as we deliberately create a welcome space for the love of God to motivate and transform our behaviour. The call is to stop defending ourselves, and fighting off the intruders in the vineyard, and rather to welcome the spirit-sent opportunities that will demand of us, but will also change us.
And we can’t do it alone – we need to help one another; speak truth to one another, and receive truth from one another, but we can’t do that without loving one another, and that’s what’s really difficult. We are a fragile community here – many of us have been damaged by life and are deeply vulnerable, and we have brittle edges and low tolerances of others. Its hard to like each other sometimes, so it seems all the harder to love, but we will not grow as a community by simply singing responses and speaking liturgy to each other. God will not heal us in isolation, nor change us by some kind of osmosis. Only through repeated acts of will by each of us, which arise from our prayer and our encounters with God, can we move beyond being a group who simply worship together to becoming a community which displays the fruit of the Kingdom.
I struggle with this because a big part of me doesn’t want to build community here – its hard when the rest of your family are elsewhere and your emotional energy feels absorbed by rest of life, but that’s true for lots of us. I’d rather just drop in and out of worship and not engage in the messiness of relationships, but that’s not being church, and I have felt challenged to not just keep my share of the vineyard, but to make the acts of will to get more involved. I have to re-train my reflexes and stop behaving like a slug. It was intriguing to receive Clare’s email as I was finishing writing this on Wed. The invitation she offered is a great response to this passage, and I found it assuring that God seems to be stirring us in similar ways.
If the church does not bear the fruit of the Kingdom, which is Christ-like behaviour – living as Jesus did – then it will be lost. We will be left defending something that is no good to anyone. Like the slugs who destroy their source of life. But Christ keeps showing us that there is a narrow way; a chink in all of this, that leads to life and hope; we have to stoop low to find it sometimes and it nearly breaks us, but the glimpses of new possibilities entice us onward and inspire us to persevere.
Thanks be to God.