(Proper 22A2) Isaiah 5: 1-7, Philippians 3: 4-14, Matthew 21: 33-46
Grace and peace, as we sail on into that time of year that is in some parts of the country called “the post-season.” Though of course here in Pittsburgh, not so much: football and hockey, college basketball, and an early winter. Still some great baseball on television, but always that seems for us to be on a different planet, or in a different universe. But, forward.
The context for these two Parables of the Vineyard are of course very different, for Isaiah and for Jesus. Isaiah is offering a theological frame of reference for the disaster about to befall God’s Chosen People. Calling the Royal and Priestly leaders to account for their decision to pursue self-interest and to ignore the higher calling of God’s righteousness.
Jesus is continuing in his confrontational discussion with the religious authorities of his day. Challenging them about their complicit silence in the death of John the Baptist and by implication about their willful decision to oppose him and his message.
In both cases Isaiah and Jesus we might say “throwing down the gauntlet.” Breaking through the behavior and culture of denial and self-delusion. Getting down to brass tacks with clarity about what is really going on.
Many years ago I was a student in a course at the Church Divinity School very much like one I now help to teach at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A classroom and discussion group for students involved as Field Education parish ministry interns. It was and is a whole new world for students in this situation, of course, and I remember we used to come to the group with some pretty interesting and challenging stories. Very much like the ones I hear today from my students. Some very complicated discussions trying to solve problems with youth groups and altar guilds and vestries.
I remember one time in the midst of one of those lively discussions one of our faculty conveners, Donn Morgan, who was also our Old Testament Professor, asking us to step back for a moment and consider whatever the issue of the day was from a different perspective. “I wonder,” he said, after we had talked around in circles for half an hour or so, “how someone might approach this problem if he believed in God.”
Which of course kind of took us back. Wait a minute. What are you saying? A little bit like Isaiah, or like Jesus with the Chief Priests and Scribes. “I’ve heard all your great insights and brilliant plans. None of which seems to have gotten you very far so far. I wonder what all this might look like from God’s point of view.”
Recognizing I guess deep down how so often even the most faithful Christian people, and maybe all of us as we look into the mirror—how we will so often talk the talk about God, when we’re in church or in a prayer group or Bible study. But how when the rubber really hits the road—at work, or in the community, or in our families, there really isn’t much evidence that we take our own talk all that seriously. Sometimes this is called "functional atheism." How we seem to imagine that what we know is more or less what we need to know. That if a problem is going to be addressed and solved, we’re the ones who are going to need to do it.
This is of course just right at the center for Isaiah and for Jesus. The moral of the story: if you don’t think God is going to act to set things right, you’ve got another “think” coming.
If we think we can just skate along taking the world on our own terms and without reference to his reality—well, the day will come when we will find out just how costly that assumption is really going to be.
Matthew tells us at the end of the reading this morning that as Jesus was speaking, in this Parable all about these unruly tenants who with just unbelievable blindness caused by their self-centeredness and greed bring down upon themselves the catastrophic judgment of the vineyard owner, in the midst of all of that, all of a sudden “they realized that he was speaking about them.”
And with irony, seeing themselves in the story, they continue to play their part. The realization not leading to a turning-around, a repentance, but instead to ride the story out to the conclusion themselves. Wanting to arrest him. Kill the messenger. So clearly they heard the story, but deep down they missed the point.
We don’t see the same dramatic moment in the Isaiah passage, though we can see the end as it played out as well. Because those who heard Isaiah didn’t pay attention, didn’t respond, and so the Lord’s vineyard, his pleasant planting, was indeed destined to become a dry and barren wilderness, and the glorious City of David a heap of smoldering ruins.
At least initially it comes as something a relief to read that these parables are all about the Kings and Priests of Ancient Jerusalem, all about the Temple Authorities of Jesus’s day, because it is always very interesting and sometimes even quite satisfying to read strong and compelling words of judgment, as they are addressed to others, long ago and/or far away.
So long as they have nothing to do with us, so long as they have nothing to do with me. So long as they set no costly or challenging claim against my sense of who I am. So long as they contradict none of my cherished opinions and values. My habits, my prejudices. So long as they have nothing too particular to say about the way I organize my work or my family or my finances or my relationship with my neighbors.
Let ‘em have it, Isaiah. You tell ‘em, Jesus. You tell ‘em.
But nonetheless, First Sunday in October, this just might roll up on our doorstep this morning to give us at least a little shake. If we can manage that. If the Kings and Priests of Isaiah’s day had their minds closed to the call of righteousness and obedience expressed in the Word and Covenant, how am I in that department myself? I wonder. And it’s good and important for me to wonder that. If the Scribes and Pharisees keep their eyes and ears closed and will surround themselves only with people who see things their way, who value the things they value, who refuse to consider the possibility that God might be speaking to them in the voices of persons who think differently, who value things differently, who are not open to the possibility that they themselves might be some ways down the wrong track—well, how am I in that department myself?
What if there is a God, and what if he has acted? What if he has spoken? What difference would that knowledge make to me? To my openness to hear something different, something new. To my willingness to step back and ask what the right thing to do is, what God is doing, rather than to focus only on what I think and what I want? We use those words anyway in our Creeds and Catechism, as we speak about the Holy Scriptures. As we speak about Jesus and the Cross.
It may be, says St. Paul, in this wonderful passage from Philippians, the one thing worth knowing. The single transforming moment of our lives. That, yes, there is a God, and that God has spoken, God has acted. That he speaks. That he continues to act in our lives and in our world. And so to have our confidence not in ourselves, in what we know and what we might do and accomplish, but to have our hope and our confidence in him. In Christ alone. To regard all as loss, as rubbish—such an extreme word—for his sake. To say not that it’s all about be, about winning, about my being right, about things turning out the way I want them to turn out. But to say, simply, in the midst of so much complexity of the world, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
To have that phrase as background as we observe once again these Parables of the Vineyard, and as we would see ourselves reflected in them. And as we would reach out ourselves this morning to be made one with him in the sacrament of the bread and cup. We know what it is to be off track and down the wrong track. Deep down that’s no mystery to us, although we so often pretend otherwise. But there is a choice. God sends Isaiah, and John the Baptist, and he comes to us himself as his only Son walks this long journey to the Cross. And the invitation this morning not that he would see things our way, and come with us, but that we would turn and follow him. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”