Sermon for 18th Sunday after Pentecost - October 8 2017

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
October 8, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

So, as Jesus tells the story, the wicked tenants have killed the landlord’s son. He then asks his audience what they think the landlord should do.  Who was his audience?

His audience is the same people who challenged his authority last week, and then go all mealy-mouthed when he asked them whether John the Baptist’s authority came from heaven or from man.

Here, they probably thought, was a nice, clean, obvious question and answer: the landlord will treat them as the treated the landlord’s son.  A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

Vengeance. Punishment. The tenants challenged the right of the landlord to collect rents from his property, and wanted to claim his property for themselves.

They were squatters, and property must be protected.  They were murderers, and their victims deserve justice – the harsher the better.

It makes sense – our whole legal system, our ethical constructs, our values – all back up the idea of ownership and recompense, life for life, dispossession for thievery.  And Jesus doesn’t say they are wrong, not this time.  He just says they are the tenants.

Sometimes a vineyard is just a vineyard.  Sometimes a vineyard is much, much more.

Jesus then switches to another metaphor … a corner stone, a foundation stone.

They used to be the same thing, pretty much; until recently when we started using cornerstones to make a statement, cornerstones were the first stone laid in the foundation.  They defined the position of the building, and everything constructed from their initial installation was measured in relationship to them.

Such a stone is big, heavy, impressive, well carved (if they were used for a church, sometimes they were carved out and relics of a patron saint were placed inside).  You sure wouldn’t want to drop one on your foot, or trip over it, or have it fall on you. 

But did you know that on the Temple of the Mount, there is a rock that has been there from the dawn of time – or at least the earliest days of the nation of Israel.  The story has it that Adam set up an altar there, that Cain and Abel offered their gifts there, that Abraham bound Isaac there, that Jacob saw the ladder with angels going up and down there.  Here the Ark of the Covenant was placed, in the holy of holies.  It is the center of everything.  The root of the nation.  At least in the traditions.

A Roman-era rabbi’s commentary sums up the centrality and holiness of this site in Judaism:

As the navel set in the center of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the center of the world, and
Jerusalem in the center of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the center of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the center of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the center of the holy place
and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.[1]

This, THIS is why the religious authorities were so shocked by what Jesus told them – all this would be taken away from them?!?  God had placed them here, in this holy place and there was no way they could lose it again.

When Jesus said that God’s corner stone would be taken away, it was a deep, visceral, gut-wrenching insult, one that drew on the deepest fear of the human heart – that God might find us unworthy, contemptible, damnable.  We are all so quick to label our brother and sister humans in these ways, no wonder Jesus’ questioners heard it that way.

The authorities of Judah had set themselves up for this, of course, in refusing to admit that they might have been wrong about whence came the authority of John the Baptist, and by saying wrongdoers should be punished, harshly, in response to the question about the tenants in the vineyard.

Don’t overlook the fact that this gospel of Matthew was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, after Rome had done what they most feared, and hoped to avoid: Rome destroyed the Temple and occupied the holy mountain, because they had failed to keep the peace and forestall revolution.

Their fear-driven, greed-fueled, power-mad, reactionary, restrictive policies practically guaranteed a rebellion.

They didn’t just kill Jesus, they had already killed the law and the prophets, and catered to the Roman overlords, treating their own people as nuisances and hindrances and troublemakers and embarrassments … and not like human beings.

Even the oppressed can help the oppressed, and many do.  But the religious leaders in Jerusalem chose not to. 

Were they evil?  Were they victims?  Did fear blind them?  Did their “privilege” prevent them from seeing the truth, seeing who John the Baptist was, seeing who Jesus was?  I don’t know that they were evil; perhaps they merely were trying to make the best of a bad situation.  But I do think they were deeply afraid.  And I do think that fear is the root of most evil in the world. 

And what about us?  Are we evil; are we victims; are we blind; do we not see the truth?  Do we not see who Jesus was and is?  Or are we too afraid to see?

So, when Jesus asked what would the landlord do, the priests and scribes said he would kill those wicked tenants, and take back the vineyard and find new tenants. 

But what did our landlord, our God do for the tenants in Jerusalem and all the assailed places of the world?  God sent the Son, God sent the Holy Spirit; and then God sent his followers – and sends us – out to do the work that has been given us to do – to feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, and, most of all, and in so doing, to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s not about vengeance, it’s never about vengeance.  It’s about … mercy, kindness, and love.  And always has been.


[1] The midrash of Tanhuma.

  January 2018  
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