Sermon, Matthew 22:34-46, “Thou Shalt Love!” 30th Ordinary, A

30th Sunday in Ordinary A, October 26, 2008

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Matthew 22:34-46

Thou Shalt Love!

There is actually a book called The Bible for Dummies. I know the bible can sometimes make you feel dumb, especially when you read about ancient practices that do not make sense to us today like laws against:

  • sowing a field with two kinds of seeds, or against
  • wearing a garment made of 2 kinds of fabric (Lev. 19:19).

Before the books for Dummies series was even an idea in a publisher’s mind, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, published a book called “The Bible Makes Sense“.

The only people who would buy such a book are those who have trouble making sense of the bible.

On being concise

  • Brueggemann’s little book was about 100 pages long.
  • I did a little two part seminar on the Old Testament recently – the overview took about 5 hours.
  • Jesus did it with 41 words.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

All the law and the prophets, that is, the entire Old Testament, he said, hang on two pegs: Love for God, and love for neighbors.

This is it: this is the boiled down essence; everything else is just explanation and commentary.
The insulting trick question
We can all be thankful for those 41 words. Jesus had reason not to answer the question he was asked by his opponents – it was meant to insult him and to give him an opportunity to slip-up.

Their idea was to ask an apparently easy question, hoping that maybe, Jesus, in an attempt to be profound, would make a mistake. Perhaps he would say the wrong thing and bring his whole career as Messiah to a close.

The best person to send in for this trick-question job is a Lawyer – an expert in the law – or as they called it, in Torah; the Old Testament.

Say The Pledge
What must have this been like for Jesus? Can you imagine being asked, “Can you recite the pledge of allegiance?” It would be insulting! Like being asked if you were “really a patriotic American”.

That’s what this question was like: “What is the greatest commandment?” It was almost like asking, “are you a real Jew?”

The Shema’
Why? Because every faithful Jew, every day, in fact, several times a day repeated the same creed, the famous confession of faith in one God; the creed of Monotheism.

The first word of the creed in Hebrew is “Shema‘” meaning “Hear” so Jewish people call this creed “The Great Shema”

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deut. 6:4-5

Ethical Monotheism
Unlike all the other peoples around them, the Jews believe, not in a pantheon of many gods, but in One single God; in Monotheism.

This one single God was different from so many of the other gods around in that he cares what people do – not just what they do religiously, for the gods, like offering sacrifices and prayers, but what they do for and to and about each other; ethics.

So Jewish people (and hence we) believe, in “ethical monotheism.”

The Gift of Torah
Jewish people will tell you that this One single God gave a great gift to his chosen people: a book of guidance which told them what his legal and ethical requirements were.

They called this guidance, the Instruction, or the Torah – or the Law.

Actually the Old Testament, by the Rabbi’s count, contains 613 commands, or laws.

Included in these are:

  • religious laws, like keep the Sabbath holy, and
  • civil laws, like the need for two witnesses in court for a conviction, and
  • ethical laws like do not covet your neighbor’s wife.

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any such distinction made between laws – they were all on the same level – religious, civil, and ethical laws were equal.

So, it could have been tricky to ask which of the 613 was the greatest – but every Jew knew the most important was contained in the great creed, the Shema:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Jesus’ addition: 2nd greatest law
So Jesus passed the exam, got the answer right, and then added an addendum: the second greatest commandment.

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Jesus did not claim to invent that; it is a direct quotation from the book of Leviticus. (19:18)

But what he did was to bring this command along side the Great Shema, and elevate it to the very next place in priority. Immediately after the great creed of monotheism is the command to love ones neighbor.

Do you want the OT for Dummies? Here it is, Jesus says,

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I love the word “hang”. I picture the Golden Gate Bridge, suspended on those two enormous towers. On those two, the entire span hangs.

The entire Old Testament, all 613 laws hang suspended on these two central commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

All the rest is commentary and explanation.

“Thou shalt…” love?
But this is a problem: how can you say “Thou Shalt Love?”
– Can love be commanded?
– Is that not much more like an arranged marriage than true love?

And to make matters worse, the whole thing ends up being a self-contradiction: The greatest two commandments command you to believe that the essence of your faith is not about commandments at all, but rather about love which is un-command-able!

The Garden of Eden
Let’s go back to the story of the Garden of Eden for a moment. Paradise is pictured as the two original humans:

  • who are in harmony with each other,
  • who are in a world of abundance and security,
  • and who are speaking with God directly
  • without any strings on their arms and legs.

– They are not marionettes controlled by a puppeteer.
– They are free to make real, significant moral choices. Their love is not coerced.

That is a picture of the world as it was intended to be; the world as it was created to be; the world as it should be. Humans, made in the image of God, in free and un-coerced harmony with Creation, Creator, and Creatures.

But these representative humans chose against love, and the chaotic story of human history is the result.

The ache that you feel, when you are alone, when its quiet, is the ache of a broken relationship with God, your Maker.

And the whole long story of the Old Testament is God’s gracious, repeated initiatives, to woo us back.

It’s a long story, but it can be boiled down to its essence and summed-up in 41 words.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

It is crucial that Jesus elevated the love of neighbor command to second place. Why? Because we humans have something wrong with us.

Human history is a tragic record of division and animosity. People – we – are forever defining ourselves into little groups:

  • clans
  • tribes
  • nations
  • religions

We define who is in the group and who is out: the Us and the Them.

We will do almost anything, (or rather, absolutely anything) to promote our group against theirs.

And we will always believe that we have God on our side. There has never been a group who did not.

And so it has always been exactly one short step from a love for God that is 100% heart, soul and mind – just as the Great Shema’ says it should be, to Jihad; holy war.

It is the second highest law that keeps the first law from becoming the legitimation of the suicide vest.

We answer, “No!” Because of Jesus, we understand better what 100% love of God is, and what it is not.

Because of Jesus, we now understand that the Creator of all human beings in his image is horrified by and opposed to their mutual destruction.

God is loved 100% when and only when we are also loving our neighbors as ourselves.

And who are our neighbors? You know the answer.

Images of God
Monotheists are forbidden from making images of God. There is no possible image or representation that could be adequate for God who is infinite; any image would be a limited and therefore distorted one.

But, in the heart of the story of Creation, we find something remarkable.

In the very story that shows us God the creator of everything, whom nothing can adequately represent, we find that he himself has created an image of himself.

Listen to Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;…”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The closest thing we have to show us what God is like, is each other; made in God’s own image. Humans:

  • who are free to act in morally significant ways;
  • who have the capacity to love without coercion
  • who have spirits – who can be in relationship with God

It is now impossible to simply define our group, our clan, our tribe, our faith, and to believe that God is on our side when we neglect the needs of others or engage in Jihad against them.

Jesus himself gave us 41 words on which to hang the greatest bridge ever built – the bridge from God to us and our neighbors:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Local Man Becomes Missionary: Survives!

Jer 29:1-14 the letter to the exiles
Matt 28:16-20 the great comission

Trivial Gospel?

Probably one of the top 3 best known lines in the bible, next to “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is
For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…
–  from John 3:16.

The two phrases have a lot in common. Although “cleanliness is next to godliness” is not actually in the bible, many people think it is – and it seems to fit in with what people expect to find in the bible  –  a pithy moral aphorism that is utterly, thoroughly trivial.

That is why it is so similar to the other phrase, “For God so loved the world...”.  The love of God for the world gets turned into soft, happy-feeling, exclusively personal – often self-centered trivial mush that has nothing to do with the world as it is:

  • The world of  Wall Street and Main Street,
  • the world of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,
  • the world of Africa-town Mobile,
  • of North Baldwin County,
  • and of Darfur, Sudan.

God’s non-trivial love

What does it mean that God loves the world to the point of sending his son for the world’s redemption?

If it means anything, it cannot be trivial, and if it is about he world it cannot be merely personal.

I believe that God does love me, personally, and that Jesus Christ is the source of my redemption; and the same for you, personally.  But I believe a lot more.  I believe that God really does love the world that he made.

I believe that God especially loves the people he made, male and female, in his image.  Not just the well washed ones that come to Presbyterian churches on Sunday, and not just the well-meaning ones or the ones that believe in freedom and democracy.  I believe that he loves “the world” as John said.

That means that I believe he grieves when his humans, when we

  • harm one another,
  • oppress one another,
  • turn on each other in violence,
  • and when we kill each other.

How could any father watch two sons whom he loves in battle with each other, and not grieve?

Our Missionary experience in former Yugoslavia

We served as Presbyterian missionaries in Croatia, (formerly, one of the republics of Yugoslavia) for 10 years.
Croatia is almost entirely Roman Catholic.

Breaking away from Yugoslavia to become independent meant going to war with the Yugoslav republic of Serbia – the power-broker in Yugoslavia.

Serbia is almost entirely Orthodox Christian (like Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox – part of the Eastern Orthodox family of Christianity).

So here we have two ostensibly Christian nations at war with each other.  It was brutal.  We lived within sight of bombed-damaged churches, within a 25 minute drive of totally destroyed villages, and also, of more than one mass grave.

Whatever the reasons or justifications for the separation or the war, I agree with the Catholic Bishop of Zagreb, capital of Croatia who said if just 10% of his people were real Christians, the war could not have happened.  But it did.  And God grieved.  And Christianity failed to stop it.

We lived across the street from a school which had graffiti painted on the walls: when we learned enough of the language to understand it, we knew that ethnic hatred was alive and well.

Though we lived in Croatia, we lived next to a Serbian Orthodox church that served the minority Serb population that did not flee during the war.  Twice, we had to call the fire department because someone had started a fire there – even though the war had been over for several years.

I walked into a store with my first son when he was still quite young.  When the cashier figured out that he was an American little boy she said “you don’t like those bad Serbs, do you?”

Afterwards, outside, Benjamin asked me who the Serbs were and why they were bad?  The lesson she had intended to teach him about whom to hate had not been completed.  But
his friends knew – so the circle could continue again.

The Charge: make Disciples

God does love the world.   And we all have been charged with the message of the gospel, to go into the world and to make disciples.  Not to make nominal-christians, but to make disciples of Jesus Christ; people who:

  • follow him,
  • study him,
  • learn from him,
  • imitate him,
  • and start to resemble him in their lives,
  • morally,
  • socially – shall I say it?
  • yes, even politically.

Disciples at the Seminary

I taught bible at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Croatia.  The school was an international one: we drew students from all across the region from formerly Communist countries from Ukraine to Albania.

This meant that yes, we had students from Orthodox countries and from Catholic countries.  Yes, we had Serbs and Croats – and they were not enemies.

In fact, that school was in some ways a model of the kingdom of God.  Those students:

  • studied together,
  • worshiped together,
  • ate
  • and worked together,
  • and lived on campus together

– because they had taken seriously the call to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Good news – and spin

We need to look at one aspect of this common text we call the Great Commission in Matthew: what exactly is the “gospel” that we are supposed to be going into all the world with?

We Christians usually think of the content of the message of the gospel when we hear that question – but let us step back.  What did the word “gospel” mean in Jesus’ day?

That word, “gospel” of course literally means “good news” but that is not what people thought of first when they heard the word back in Jesus’ day – any more than we think of a heart in flames when we talk about heartburn.

– Gospel was a specific term used for official announcements from the Roman government.

– Gospel was the announcement of the birth or succession of a new emperor, or of a military victory.

– Gospel was an official proclamation from the Empire-of-the- moment to the subjects under its control.  We would call it propaganda or spin – spin with official power behind it.

Jesus was intentionally subverting the Empire of the day when he told his followers to go into the world and preach the gospel.

The gospel according to Jesus is the proclamation from the real Emperor of the world – from the God who loves the world.

There is good news from the Emperor: it is precisely that God loves the world – “red and yellow, black and white,” Serb and Croat, Arab and Jew, and has sent his son to redeem us from the false empire of evil; real evil, not trivial evil.

The Serbian and Croatian students at the seminary in Croatia  understand that Jesus died for both of them.  They understand that the clear demand of the gospel is that they  become  disciples, not merely nominal believers.

And they understand that as disciples, they must  recognize one another as sisters and brothers in the one body of Christ.  That is anything but trivial.  They are not going to be putting each other into mass graves.

God is a God of missions.  He is never content to simply leave the status quo alone.  He is a god who calls us not to sit in our circle of look-alike, think-alike people but to extend his love to an ever widening circle.

Where is our mission?

Where are there people who are different from us?
– That is where we are called to go with God’s love.

Where are there people suffering or poor?
– That is where we are called to go with God’s love.

Where are there people discriminated against or shunned?
– That is where we are called to go with God’s love.

Perhaps it is in to the trailer courts of Baldwin county, or in the villages of the Yucatan peninsula.

It may be to the people with foreign accents who serve us our meals at the restaurant, or the people outside cutting the grass.
It may be to people sitting in tiny cells for decades on death row in Atmore.

God is a god of Missions, and therefore, we are a people of missions.

Not just in good times when it’s easy, when we have extra, when we don’t miss it, but in times that are difficult and challenging, times when mission costs us, even when it requires sacrifice – just as it did for the first 11 people who heard that call from our Lord.

As of April 2008, the PC(USA) has 239 long-term mission workers serving in 63 countries. Of these 209 are mission co-workers and 30 are long-term volunteers. In addition 24 Young Adult Volunteers are serving internationally.

Is that what missions means?  To cross a border?

Yes of course, going into all the world with the good news of the gospel must include the world.

But that is not all it means.  All the world includes Alabama.  All the world includes Baldwin county.  All the world includes Foley.

As the prophet Jeremiah said, seek the welfare of the city in which you live now – for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  In its shalom, you will find your shalom.

Making disciples is the goal for for all nations – not just foreign ones.  We are all God’s missionaries; all of us have been called.  Some of us need to leave home to answer that call.  Most of us will be called to missions right in our own back yard.

Short Term call
Some of us will be called to go on short term mission trips – Answer that call!  See the world, see how other people live first hand.   Be a part of the solution  with your own hands; and then come back and share the vision with the church.

Long term call
Perhaps God is going to call one of you younger people to give a significant part of your life in long term cross-cultural missions; be open to that call, and when it comes, embrace it!

Go into the world outside these doors and proclaim the gospel, the subversive message from the Emperor of the Universe:  that God loves the world in the most non-trivial way possible.  The world is desperate for real disciples who actually believe the gospel!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Steven Kurtz, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Gulf Shores, along with his wife, Michelle served as Missionaries of the PC(USA) for two years in Romania and 10 years in Croatia.  Steven taught Bible at the Evangelical Theological Seminary and worked closely with our partners, the Reformed Church in war-torn former Yugoslavia, coordinating aid from PC(USA) congregations to pastors and congregations in the early post-war years.  Steven and Michelle have two sons.

Sermon 28th Ordinary, Year A, October 12, 2008

Isaiah 25:1–9
Matthew 22:1–14

Many but Few

One of the most beautiful, hopeful visions of the future in the bible is the banquet table at the end of time.

Everyone is there – old friends, family, generations – all seated together.  I love the way Isaiah pictures it as:

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear

This is what everyone is looking forward to.  It is known as the Banquet of Messiah.

It is there, at that banquet, that the Lord will finally
wipe away the tears from all faces, because he has swallowed up death for ever.

So why in the world would Jesus take this beautiful picture of the banquet at the end of time, and put it in a parable with so much death and misery?
And other questions arise:

  • Why would people reject the invitation to the banquet?
  • Why are their excuses so lame?
  • Why do they kill the servants who invited them?
  • Why would the king need to burn their city down for the guilt of a few?
  • Why is that man at the end not dressed properly?

And what does this have to do with us, today?
The central question of life is how can we know God: how can we have a relationship with God?

This parable is all about that question, but it is scary: not everybody makes it; not everybody gets a seat at the table.  Some do not want a seat, and others think they have one, but they loose it.

In these times, especially, we are aware of how much we need God in our lives – we do not want to miss his invitation to the banquet, and we certainly do not want to be forcibly removed.

So what is going on?  Jesus is clearly using Isaiah’s image, so let’s start there.

First, in Isaiah’s vision of the great end-time banquet, there are two groups of people.  One group is sitting at the table of rich food, but the other used to be in a fortified palace, but the people in it were “ruthless” Isaiah says (3 times).  Now their city is a heap of ruins.

God put an end to their ruthlessness so that he could hold his banquet.   Who are the ones that need to take shelter from these ruthless people?  Specifically Isaiah says,

you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress

The poor and the needy are always the targets of the ruthless, but God will reverse their plight.  The great banquet at the end of time will be, Isaiah says, “for all people“.  Not just the lucky elite few.

But in Jesus’ telling, not everyone is happy with this banquet.
Why would anybody turn down an invitation to this feast as they do in Jesus’ parable?

Precisely because of the invitation list.

In Jesus’ day, it was common to invite people to a wedding banquet twice.  First, the invitations were issued, then potential guests would ask around and find out who was coming and whether all the arrangements had been made properly.  If the right people were coming, all would come.  If the right people stayed away, all would follow suit.  Trivial excuses followed. (source: Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 111)

Obviously, in Jesus’ parable,  people were not coming to the banquet because the “right people” were not coming.  The proud, the pretentious, the classy people were taking a pass and making excuses.

Why?  Because there was simply no way they were going to be seen in public sharing a table and food with the low class poor and needy who were going to be sitting at that table.

Exactly the kind of people who were going to be finding refuge at this table, according to Isaiah, the poor and needy, were the ones whose presence made the table intolerable to the rich and powerful.

So what happens?  Isaiah said that the city of the ruthless would become a heap of ruins.  The way Jesus tells it, the city of the people who are too good to accept the invitation gets sacked.

Isn’t this extreme vengeance?

Remember this is a story, and in the story, the invitations are given by a king.  That means the people who are invited are his subjects.

When they killed the servants who delivered the invitations, they were committing high treason; they were in open, armed rebellion against the king.  We will come back to this important fact in a minute.

Next, the king goes out to round up exactly the kind of people Isaiah predicted would be there: the invitations do not go to the palaces and estates, they go to the streets.  The fruit sellers, the butchers, the day-laborers are all there – the poor and the needy are there – and they get the second round of invitations.

Now, here is the way Jesus’ audience would have understood God an his purposes: “We are God’s chosen people.  We are subjects of his kingdom.  We are going to be sitting at that banquet table of Messiah; it is for us.”

But Jesus was saying to them in effect: “You are dead wrong.  You have rejected the very goal of that table.  If you are subjects of the kingdom, you are in open rebellion against its king.”

Jesus is saying to them, “You have proven your hostility to the king by your hostility to the people he came to save; the poor and the needy.”

You rejected the banquet invitation because the “right people” were not going to be there – well the “right people” are indeed  going to be there because the king gets to define who the “right people” are.

“But,” they protest, “we are the chosen people!”

This is the point: the criterion of chosen-ness has changed.  Now it is not your blood line and family tree that makes you a member of the chosen people anymore.  Those days are gone.

Now, being a chosen person is defined solely by allegiance to the king.

Jesus is saying to them, “Do not say that you are chosen because Abraham is your father. Rather, you are chosen if  you are a loyal subject of the king – and you will show that loyalty by gladly accepting his invitation to the banquet to sit with all kinds of formerly excluded people.”

Jesus’ whole life demonstrated the fact that this banquet table is open to everyone – come lame, blind, lepers, women, children, hungry, needy, former tax collectors, former prostitutes, soldiers, Romans, Canaanites, even people with demons!

Do you want to be among the “right people”?  These are they!

Behind this whole story is this fact:  God loves us people – and the  weaker we are, the more he loves us.  The more helpless we are, the more he extends his mercy.

This is good news!  God is for us.  He is the one who made the refuge for the poor and defended the needy against the ruthless.  He is the one who prepared the feast.  This is all about his loving concern for all people.

The only way you can un-choose yourself; the only way  you can become the object of his wrath, is to be in open rebellion against love.  The only way you can loose your place at that table is by thinking you are better than anyone else he has invited to the table.

But there is one more part to this story:

The same criterion applies to the street people just as it did to the original high-class citizens.  If you want to sit at the banquet table you must honor the wishes of the king who invited you.

Recall that the setting of this story is a society where rules of honor and shame are taken with utmost seriousness.

The high-class people showed their dishonor by their open rebellion against the king.  So too, the low class people from the streets can show their dishonor by trying to sit at the table without wearing the wedding gown that the host has provided.

By that act they are trying to get the benefits from the king without honoring him.  This is the wedding banquet of the prince: don’t you dare treat it with contempt.

In other words – even the poor and needy who come to the table must be willing to embrace the ethical vision of that table.  No one gets a pass.

There is a deep irony here: the common expression of the chosen people is “many are called but few are chosen” (“and we are the lucky few”).  But look at the story!  The chosen ones, at the end, are many – very many.

But the ones who thought that being chosen meant that they could live for themselves and exclude others were wrong.

Now, this story ends on a bad note because it is one of these conflict stories: Jesus is confronting people who have made a career out of rejecting God’s values.

They are in open opposition to Jesus precisely because they reject the idea that God can love the untouchables of their day.

But let us let the other shoe drop.  The whole point is that God’s love knows no bounds.

The whole point is that we, here, today are chosen and loved by God – not because of blood lines, but because God loved the world so much that he has sent his son to folks like us!

And now, it is our joy to embrace his banquet vision.  Now it makes our mouth water to anticipate sitting at that feast along side people we didn’t go to school with and didn’t live next to.

And now, it is our goal to embrace the king’s goal.  It is our goal to go out onto the streets and find people who are hungry for a feast of acceptance and love.

This is what it means to be rightly related to God!  This is what it means to know God – it is to embrace his love-mission to the world.

These times are not easy times for us – and it looks as though they will get harder for  most of the world.   In times like this, we need to be in close contact with God.  We need to have a vital, healthy relationship with God.

We come here to worship, to pray, to learn from scripture.  This is vital to our relationship with God.  But also vital to our relationship with God is our manner of life outside these walls.

The God we love, loves the people that may be quite unlike us.    The Jesus who redeemed us from the evil in our hearts considers ruthlessness evil.

The Lord who loves us and invites us to his banquet requires us to extend that invitation.  This is true spirituality: to love the way the King loves; the people the king loves!

Sermon 27th Ordianry, A, Matthew 21:33-46

For lectionary readings at Vanderbilt, click here

Isa 5:1-7

Matt 21:33-46

Note: because Isaiah 5 is not in the Lectionary for this Sunday, I’m including it here (NRSV).  It is needed because everyone originally hearing Jesus’ parable of the tenants in the vineyard would know that he was riffing on this Isaiah text.

Isaiah 5:1-7

1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  2 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 wild grapes. 3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Why Grow Grapes?

This text Gospel text is brutal!  Certainly it is for mature audiences only.  It is full of violence from start to finish. The opening scene has a beating, a stoning, and a killing.  All 3 are malicious group-actions against innocent victims.  It culminates in the murder of the son of the main character, the vineyard owner.

The violence continues as we hear the original audience, the Chief priests and pharisees recommend a response of capital punishment – not humane capital punishment, but, as they say, the owner should “put those wretches to a miserable death” – very cruel, maybe not unusual punishment.

The text then ends with more violence.  This time it’s a stone that does the damage: someone trips on it and is “broken to pieces;”  and the one on whom it falls gets “crushed.”  This is like a Shakespearean tragedy: as the curtain falls there are dead bodies all over the place.

A room full of dead bodies was never God’s intention.  This is not a picture of the world as it should be, this is a picture of the world gone bad.All the dead bodies in this story should have the effect of waking us up to take this seriously; apparently this story is about life and death issues.  Let us venture in.

First a comment: Wine is the reason to grow grapes.  Wine is what makes all the trouble worthwhile – and  grapevines are troublesome, difficult plants.  They demand hours of laborious pruning, and their fruit doesn’t keep – especially in warm climates.  Why do people bother?

The answer has been known since ancient times – from China to Persia, Israel, Greece and Rome – wine.  You grow grapes to make wine.The experience of a fine wine is deep and complex.  This is the perfect metaphor for what God desires for his people.

We are meant to be his prize vintage.  The world that God intends is a world of blessing and satisfaction. That is the metaphor; life as it should be.  The opposite of a room full of murder victims and crushed bodies.

Jesus learned this vineyard and wine metaphor from the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah pictures God singing a song for his people, his vineyard – but not a happy one; it is a dirge.  He planted a good stock, but it came up wild.  He built a vat to collect the fresh juice but it never felt the stain of a single grape. The wild vine  would have produced completely undrinkable wine.

So Jesus picked up on Isaiah’s vineyard metaphor and molded it to suit his vision.  Isaiah’s vineyard song pictures the whole worthless vineyard getting uprooted, ripped out and trampled into the dust: a metaphor for judgment.

But in Jesus’ telling, the song is different; the vine remains intact. It is the farmers who are held responsible at the end.

Why?  Because as Jesus reflected on Isaiah’s vineyard image, he came to the conclusion that vines that are planted from good stock should produce good grapes, excellent wine – unless.  Unless they are mismanaged.  If the ones in charge of tending the vines that God planted do a bad job of it, they can mess up the whole thing.

The vineyard planter – the owner – is not disinterested in the outcome, he has expectations.  He wants fine wine.

The wine of justice and righteousness

So, we move from the metaphor to the hard ground of real life: what did God want from Israel?  What constituted the fine wine he was producing?  Isaiah says it in plain Hebrew:

he expected justice, [and]; righteousness!

But what did he get instead?  bloodshed; and a (victim’s) cry! [the Hebrew uses puns that cannot be replicated in English]

A world of Justice and righteousness is a world as rich and satisfying as fine wine is at a banquet.  It is the opposite of a world of bloodshed and desperate cries for help, a world of murdered corpses and crushed people.

How did this debacle happen?

Jesus identifies the culprits – they are the leaders.  The tenants did not tend the vines.

The leadership turned what could have been a fruit-producing, wine-making vineyard into a no-go zone of certain death.

Why would Jesus have wanted to picture the leadership of Israel as tenants who killed off the men sent by the Vineyard planter?

Because that is what his people had done to the God’s servants, the prophets whom he had sent to them – imprisoning some, stoning some, and killing others.

Would they do the same thing if God sent his own Son?  Jesus expected the answer would be “yes.”

The tenants rejected the servants of the vineyard owner, and would reject his son as well.

Rejected son – Rejected stone

It was a disastrous situation.  It would be like builders rejecting the very stone that was supposed to hold the whole building together and getting crushed as it all came down on top of them.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the chief priests and leaders of Israel were called the “builders of the nation.”

The builders rejected the stone, the tenants rejected the son, there would be no wine, no banquet, only bodies soaking the soil with their blood.
What had the leaders done to deserve getting cast in the role of murders in the story?

Jesus held them responsible for  destroying the whole vineyard; the community.

God planted this vineyard for a reason; he wanted it to be fruitful and healthy, to produce wine – but not just for his own enjoyment.  As we will see next week, this is all part of his preparation for an enormous banquet.

The wine God wanted was supposed to bless the world.  The promise to Abraham so long ago was that in his descendants all the world would be blessed.

As the prophet Isaiah said, that God’s intention was that this community would be a light to the nations.

This community was supposed to  be a model for the world of justice and righteousness.

This is exactly what the doleful song of the vineyard in Isaiah says:

God expected justice and righteousness – but that was not the agenda of the leadership, and it is not what happened.

But here is the amazing part: according to Jesus, when things go south, when the dream of a community of justice and righteousness dies, what should God do?

What should the owner do with wicked tenants?  Come back and put the wretches to a miserable death? — judgment?

Or could the owner instead put the vineyard contract out for re-bidding?  Open the door to a new set of tenants who share his goals – who will tend the vines, and produce the wine of justice and righteousness with which to bless the whole world?

Jesus predicted plan B (unthinkable to the original leadership).   The vineyard’s lease agreement would be re-negotiated, and given to the people on the other side of the wall – to outsiders.

God is intent on blessing the world, producing his wine and holding his banquet.

All he needs is tenants who will embrace his  vision; people who will prune and tend and nurture the vine until it produces a harvest of plump, juicy vintage grapes.

Our turn as tenants
We now have the garden tools in our hands.  We know what to do with them.  We know what the Owner-planter expects:

he expected justice, and righteousness

This is not easy – vines are troublesome.  The natural way for the world to be is a world of bloodshed and cries for mercy.  But we are to be different.

We are the ones who have a vision of the Grand Design that stands behind day-to-day vineyard life.  We have a vision of a world blessed by God with the wine of justice and righteousness.

A world of justice is a world in which no one is shut out; everyone is welcomed at the banquet table.
A world of justice is a world in which every plate has food on it.
And a world of righteousness is one in which there are no cries for help because no one is made a victim.

  • The weak are protected,
  • the vulnerable are looked after,
  • the poor are not abused.

A world of justice and righteousness is one in which no one seeks unfair advantage at the expense of another – even when no one is watching.

A world of justice and righteousness is one in which no one sells a mortgage to someone who he knows cannot afford it, just because the law lets him, and his company rewards him for it.

A world of justice and righteousness is one in which no one cuts corners to save money by polluting the vineyard’s air, water and soil.

This is the blessed world that God intends – the blessing that he plans  – the rich, complex, deeply satisfying wine of justice and righteousness.

This is he Lord’s doing; and it is marvelous in our eyes.

On this World Communion Sunday, we will come to the Lord’s table in anticipation of that great banquet day.
We will consider the injustices and unrighteousness of a world full of bloodshed and the cries of victims.
And we will commit ourselves to living according to the vision of the the world as it should be.