October 5, 2014, Pentecost 17 – Grace in the Vineyard
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Previously in chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel – the chief priests and the elders had come to Jesus, full of righteous indignation, because Jesus had gone into the Temple and had actually knocked over the tables of the people who were just going about their business selling pigeons and providing correct currency for the Temple sacrifices. He had even made himself a whip and driven the money-changers themselves right out of the building. And finally – and this might have been the most offensive thing of all – he let all manner of people IN to the Temple, blind people and crippled people and little kids making all kinds of noise and even calling Jesus the Son of David, the title that belongs to the Messiah. The chief priests and elders were several shades of indignant, and they had come to Jesus demanding to know just where he thought he got the authority for such carryings-on.
So that was the audience for this parable – those were the people Jesus was speaking to, some very riled-up clergymen, and that gives an idea at least of the kind of tension that was in the air as he spoke. But even more important, when he began telling the parable, it would have sounded very familiar to every one of them. “A landowner planted a vineyard,” he said, “and he put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower.” Very few of us have the book of Isaiah memorized, but those chief priests and elders knew their Scriptures, and they would have recognized the words of Isaiah immediately, and they would have known that Jesus was using that image from the prophet when God sent him to rebuke his people for their faithlessness. The beginning of the parable is almost word for word the same as Isaiah’s prophecy. And Matthew says when they heard the parable, “They knew that he was speaking about them.”
In fact, Jesus is laying out the whole sordid history of the nation of Israel: how they were unfaithful to God over and over, and how they killed his servants, the prophets that he sent to warn them. And he even foretells his own betrayal and death at their hands, when he talks about the murder of the son and heir. Later on, Stephen, one of the first deacons, made the same point, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed the very ones who announced the coming of the Righteous one, whom you have now betrayed and murdered?”
It is a very bitter story, I think, and all the more so because it is such a thinly veiled parable; it is so close to the terrible reality. Century upon century, right up through John the Baptist, the fate of God’s servants was rejection and persecution and death. The writer to the Hebrews tells about the suffering of the prophets in excruciating detail: “Some were tortured… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” And just three days after Jesus had this confrontation with the chief priests and the elders he too would be arrested and tortured and put to death.
When he had finished the story, Jesus put this question to those religious leaders, “What do you think is the appropriate punishment for these wicked tenants – tell me, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And this was their answer, “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.” It is as if they condemn themselves by their words.
But the grace of God was about to be revealed. The people of God were once again brought face to face with their guilt for the death of the Son on the day of the first Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit had come and the apostles were out on the street proclaiming the gospel in every possible language, Peter preached a sobering message. “Let all this house of Israel know for certain that this Jesus, whom you crucified, is the one God has made both Lord and Christ.” And Luke writes that the people in the crowd were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter, “What shall we do?”
And Peter did not say to them, “God is going to put you wretches to a miserable death.” Far from it. Peter answered them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” So far superior is the gracious justice of God to what passes for justice among men.
At least some of these were the very men and women who had stood in the crowd and cried out “Crucify him!” Some of them had stood and watched as the nails were driven through his hands and feet; some of them had called out cruel and derisive things at him as he suffered; some of them had just run away in fear and left Jesus to the mercy of the Roman soldiers. And all this after they had listened to his teaching, after they had been fed by him. All this after he had blessed their children and healed their sick and cast out demons from the oppressed. You are murderers, Peter told them, and worse yet, the one you murdered was the Messiah, the Son of God. That was all true. And yet through Peter Jesus was calling them to be baptized in his name; he was calling them to belong to him, and to have his own Spirit within them. They had just met grace head on.
Grace is the un-human, undeserved, unthinkable, unexpected response that we will always receive when we bring our guilt to God – because the thing that we need to understand is that the people in that crowd were not specially wicked or godless kinds of people. They were people like us, fearful and foolish and changeable and ungrateful and easily manipulated. We dare not assume that if we had been in the crowds in the week of our Lord’s Passion, we would have run to defend Jesus or offered ourselves in his place or done anything noble or courageous or right. The sinfulness that is in every single one of us is capable of every kind of cruelty and cowardice, if only God did not answer our prayer and deliver us from the worst of evils. The very worst that we see in our brothers and sisters could as well be in us if we faced the same fears or suffered the same humiliations or were equally deprived of love and security.
But this is the miracle of grace – that when we come to him, when we tell him we are murderers, we are liars, we are robbers at heart – this is his answer to us: “My beloved child, I have been waiting for you. Come, live with us. Come, share the inheritance of the Son. By the grace of God we can always come before him without fear and without pretense. You will never shock God, and you will never disgust him. You will never exhaust his patience. We can offer him the very worst we have within us; we can admit the darkest secrets of our minds and heart.Think of the mystery of grace today when we pray in the Eucharist, “On the night he was handed over to suffering and death our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples” – the very ones who were about to betray him. “This is my Body, which is given for you.”