Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I’m still reeling in the wake of the violence in Los Vegas this week—not to mention other less publicized shootings in Kansas, and even shots fired down the street here on Winnebago (thank God, no one was hurt in that instance). These events, coupled with the ongoing war in Syria, the tension between the U.S. and N. Korea, and the onslaught of storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes coming so fast I’m starting to lose track of the names… the sheer volume of catastrophes has knocked me to my knees. Fortunately, from that position, as we noted last week, it is not too far a stretch to launch into prayer. This week, my prayer has often echoed lines from Psalm 80, the Psalm we sang earlier: “Restore us, O God of hosts, let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.” It is a cry for mercy, a cry for hope and healing. It is a cry of sorrow.
Crying for sorrow over the violence in our world seems to fit neatly with the texts for today, not to mention how well-suited this theme is for a Sunday already designated for global worship. In different languages and contexts, but with similarly wounded souls, the whole world cries together, “Restore us, O God of hosts!”
In today’s OT reading from Isaiah, the God of hosts is weeping too. The tears fall over a vineyard that was tenderly cared for, but refused to yield any sweet returns to the landowner. The vineyard represents the people of Israel and Judah, and the landowner is God who “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; [expected] righteousness, but heard a cry!”. The people have been given everything they needed to flourish, but the elite among them hoarded more than they needed. Driven by unholy appetites, the wealthy have fallen into debauchery and overconsumption, forcing their neighbors out of their houses and off their land. Don’t worry—this is all 8th century BCE stuff—nothing to do with us.
In this song of Isaiah, the prophet warns that the elites will not only lose the property they have unjustly seized, but also that they will go, as it were, straight to hell — into the mouth of Sheol. This is one of the earliest instances of that image in the Bible. Whether or not there is such a place geographically, the point is that punishment for their carelessness of their neighbors will be severe. As people who live in the richest land in the world, it behooves us to join with the psalmist in praying: “Restore us, O God of hosts!”
It’s hard not to see how Jesus, as a young Jewish boy brought up learning the psalms and the prophets, incorporates Isaiah’s sad song of the vineyard in his own parable today. Many of his listeners would have been tenant farmers, familiar with the scenario he establishes. Maybe even as they gathered to listen to Jesus they walked by vineyards overflowing with juicy grapes, lush foliage, or cut back stubs after the harvest. They would have been familiar with what caused sour grapes—vines that were too shallow to reach the groundwater for sustenance.
The new twist Jesus gives to the old story from Isaiah, however, is that in his parable, the vineyard is not destroyed. As Jesus tells the story, a landowner leaves his precious vineyard, fully operational, in the hands of tenants farmers who are called upon to steward the vineyard and endeavor to make it fruitful. In Jesus’ story the fault for sour grapes lies not with the vineyard, but with those left in charge of it. Jesus audience would know that usually, if tenants did not yield the produce to the landlord, he could fire them and get some other, more responsible workers.
Instead (perhaps naively), the landowner sends messenger after messenger, pleading with them to live up to their calling. The tenants beat up and kill the messengers without a thought. It’s a violent story to put alongside the other stories of violence from this past week, month, and as far back as we can remember. But the landowner responds quite differently from the way anyone expects. He doesn’t send the police to kick them off the property. No. He sends them his beloved, beautiful child. But they did not see (or did not care) that landowner sent his most precious treasure to address them. They only thought of ways that they could hang onto what they had come to think of as theirs. It wasn’t theirs, of course. Even after they killed the landowner’s son, it was still his land. They were still tenants, not his heirs. Only now they were also murderers. And heart-breakers.
“What will the landlord do when he comes?” Jesus asks. All his hearers can imagine is responding to the violence with more violence: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” And maybe we understand how this might seem like the only possible response. But notice this is not Jesus’ suggestion. It’s what his listeners come up with. The religious leaders who are in charge of God’s vineyard of believers have condemned themselves! But though he didn’t utter that condemnation, Jesus’ next words, as recorded by Matthew, seem to confirm this instinct to respond to violence with yet more violence. Jesus references Psalms 118 to explain how those who oppose and reject him are missing God’s plan for salvation and therefore will lose the kingdom.
If Jesus doesn’t offer hope for a non-violent solution, what hope is there?
I had to look beyond this parable to find it, but hope is certainly there in the Scriptures. If we take the overall narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that his story is leading up to an act of violence against the innocent Son and heir, just as the parable did. But in this case, there is no returning violence for violence. The cross of Jesus God absorbs the sour grapes of our violence and responds with life, with resurrection, with Jesus triumphant over death and offering, not retribution, but sweet peace. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Psalm Jesus quotes on the cross are not words of accusation, but words of solidarity with us in our distress: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). God is no absentee landlord. God is bleeding and suffering alongside us in this violent world.
So whatever we make of the comments Jesus makes at the end of this parable, looking at how Jesus lived and died shows us a way that is not violent, not abusive or punitive. Jesus does not shrink from the sacrifice on the cross; he does not return with vengeance; he does not kick anyone out of the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst that human violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to the places and people crying out for hope and healing, for salvation and renewal. Matthew’s story ends with Jesus promising to be with them always.
So for me this week, the Good News is that violence does not and will not have the last word. The only response to violence is NOT more violence. Tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.
There’s a lot of work to do in this vineyard God has entrusted to our care—like insisting our lawmakers take action on policies and procedures that will make our people safer from gun violence and other forms of terrorism. We are empowered to move forward with these tasks because we cling to the promise that even when it looks like violence is the only possible outcome and response, it’s not. It may have been all the religious authorities in the story could imagine, or maybe all Matthew the Evangelist could imagine. It does seem it’s all our present leaders can imagine, and perhaps all we can imagine, too. But Jesus’ death and resurrection create more possibilities than those we can see or imagine, including the possibility of peace. God’s Love is in the soil under our feet. It is in the living things that spring out of that soil. It is in the hands that tend to the living things that spring from that soil. It is present in the wine which will be offered shortly to you with this promise from Jesus: “This is my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.”
Let us turn to our heartbroken God and offer our own broken hearts, pressing on toward the goal of humbly tending God’s vineyard, knowing we are loved and cherished beyond all reason or explanation.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Sue Schneider