A sermon text, based on Matthew 21.33-46, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4, 2020.
Jesus tells a parable. As is true of all of Jesus’ parables, he employs ideas and images that are well-known and easily understood by his audience. All to make a point about (indeed, to point to!) God’s kingdom – the realm (but not really, for the kingdom of God is no physical place, but rather), the being and character of God; who God is and what God does.
Jesus tells a parable. In this case, a business-as-usual situation in Roman Empire-occupied Palestine.
A landowner plants a vineyard. Then, as oft happens, the landowner departs, venturing into another territory of the widespread Empire; perhaps in search of other commercial opportunities. The landowner, as an absentee, leases the land to tenants, who are expected to pay rent at harvest time in the form of produce from the vineyard.
When the owner’s servants arrive to collect what is due, the tenants default on their obligations. Beating one. Killing another. Stoning still another.
This is not business-as-usual.
The landowner dispatches another delegation of servants with the same sorrowful result.
This is not business-as-usual.
Then the landowner (now, if I was the landowner, I would summon a soldier or two or more to enforce my rights!) sends his son. Somehow, oddly, he thinks, crazily as it turns out, that these thieving murderous tenants would respect the inheritor of the property. They don’t! For they, somehow, equally oddly, crazily thinking that they can claim the vineyard for their own, kill the son.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God. Yet, truly, this story also is his prediction of his death. For Jesus is the son. The landowner is God. The vineyard is Israel. The servants, the prophets, sent by God to collect from the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, the due portion of the harvest of obedience to God’s love and justice for all people.
“When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
With this answer, they, ironically, unwittingly reveal their blindness to the reality that they are the object of Jesus’ scathing indictment. They are the wretched tenants who refuse to give God the harvest of righteousness. They are those who have confused their sacred leadership for the people with sovereign ownership of the people. For the Owner of the vineyard is God and God alone, always and in all ways.
And that point, from the first century unto this day and unto eternity, is, for us, as the followers of the teller of this parable, our universal truth.
It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, for anyone to communicate, whether writing or speaking without using the word “my.”
My wife. My daughter. My family and friends. My people of St. Matthew’s Church, Spartanburg, South Carolina.
My mind and heart. My soul and spirit.
My home and property.
My day and time. My life and labor and leisure.
My perspectives and prejudices about society, America, and race. My politics. My candidates. My vote.
The risk of employing this necessary word referencing our relation, our connection to people, places, things, and ourselves is that we, who dwell in time and space and in physical flesh, unconsciously can come to believe, and act accordingly, that we possess people, places, and things. (An equal danger being that people, places, and things can possess us to the point that we cannot live freely, fully, and faithfully without them.)
Yes, in this mercantile world, we do own things. Our creditors and the Internal Revenue Service surely think so! And, yes, as in death we can take none of it with us, it is prudent that we make legal provision for the disposition of our things.
Nevertheless, these worldly practicalities cannot, must not, must never obscure our constant realization of the eternal revelation that God is Owner and Provider of life, in this life and the next. In the words of King David, “All things come from Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”
Therefore, we, as followers of Jesus, always, every day, every moment of the day are to discern, come to know, and to decide, choose, to offer to God the produce, the harvest of our living in our love and justice toward all. For it is in this act of faith, hope, and love, that we, with sincerity and in Spirit and in truth, can say, “my God!”
Illustration: Parable of the Wicked Tenants, James Tissot (1836-1902)
 1 Chronicles 29.14