I enjoy real-world social psychology experiments. Like watching what happens when you stand in the wrong place in an elevator—when you violate the understood rule of one person stands alone in the middle, two people stand in the corners, three people stand along the back wall, and so on.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 4 of the series: “St. Matthew Wants You to Know”
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
October 4, 2020
Exodus 20:1–4, 7–9, 12–20; Matthew 21:33–46
Or what happens when you actually answer the question, “How are you?” when someone says it in casual greeting.
Or watch the behavior of people in a classroom when there’s no seating chart. Within a few days everyone has decided where their seats are and God help anyone who sits somewhere they don’t usually.
“Hey, that’s my seat.”
People get really upset when others don’t respect their claims on territory that they’re not actually entitled to.
Or watch the behavior in a lot of churches when people don’t sit in their accustomed pews. There are wolf packs that can be less territorial.
See, it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that if we have a history of benefiting in a certain way, then we’re entitled to that benefit.
We see something of that in today’s lesson from St. Matthew’s gospel. In it, a man builds a vineyard, puts a fence around it, builds a winepress and a watchtower. He leases the property to some tenant farmers and goes to another country. When harvest time comes, he sends his servants to collect the produce, but the tenants “seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” Finally, the landowner sends his son, figuring that the tenants will recognize the authority of their lord’s son. Instead, they kill him seeking to claim his inheritance.
They had been benefiting fro the land, but felt they were entitled to it, without understanding the work they had been hired to do.
Jesus asks those listening what they think will happen when the landowner returns. They all agree: he’ll put those miserable wretches to death and re-lease the vineyard to others who will produce fruit.
Interestingly, Jesus never directly responds to this conclusion but instead says:
Have you never read in the scriptures, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.Matthew 21:42–44
The chief priests and Pharisees realize that he’s talking about them and placing them in the role of the murderous tenants, but are unable to do anything about it because they fear the reaction of the crowd, who considers Jesus to be a prophet.
The vineyard is, of course, Israel and is a deliberate echo of an oracle from the Prophet Isaiah:
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.Isaiah 5:1–7
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
In Isaiah’s imagery, the vineyard is the house of Israel and the fruits of this vineyard was to be justice and righteousness, but instead the vineyard produced bloodshed and cries for relief.
In Jesus’ parallel of Isaiah’s vineyard parable, the temple leadership and the Pharisees are the tenant farmers of the vineyard, charged with the care and tending of the vineyard in order to produce fruit. The stewards of the covenant enacted at Sinai that established the terms of their relationship with the vineyard owner. The servants who come to claim its harvest for the vineyard owner are the prophets—like Isaiah—who come to demand the fruit of the vineyard, but who, like the prophets are rejected, beaten, and even killed.
Jesus adds to Isaiah’s framework, by introducing the character of the vineyard owner’s son. If the servants were not listened to, perhaps it was because the tenants did not recognize their authority. But surely, the son of the vintner would be listened to and respected. Here, too, the result is rejection, violence, and death.
ST. MATTHEW’S CONTEXT
We spoke last week about the historical context of the writing of Matthew’s gospel: a time of separation between early Christianity and early Rabbinic Judaism known to scholars as “the Great Divorce.”
During this time in which each sect tried to claim the mantle of the true religion of Israel, each also tried to demonstrate that the other was seriously in error and deserved to be excommunicated.
And so in this parable we see here an indictment of the Pharisees by the early Christians as ones who were charged with tending the vineyard but who killed all of the landlord’s messengers, even his own son, and tried to claim the inheritance that was not theirs to take.
The pharisees and temple leadership are portrayed as those who were responsible producing the fruit of justice and righteousness. But when they were held to account by the prophets, they “seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.”
Here, Matthew is making an argument that the early Christians’ Pharisaic rivals had forsaken the covenant not only by rejecting the words of the prophets but by rejecting God’s Son. The penalty for this is that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to another people who would bear fruit.
It is exceptionally important to pause here and note that these verses have been exceedingly problematic over the centuries. This is why context means everything.
See, there is a huge difference between an internal debate among Jewish sects about which one is the inheritor of the tradition, and an external debate between two separate religions, one whose adherents number in the billions and the other who is only the smallest fraction of that.
We cannot translate Matthew’s polemic used in an internal debate within Judaism into a theology that is used by Christians to define Judaism.
To do so leads the church toward what is called supersessionism—the belief that Church has superseded or replaced Israel as God’s people. This is a dangerous and unbiblical theology that has been responsible for a lot of Jewish suffering at the hands of Christians who had consigned them to the ash heap of history. For once you decide that Jews are cut out of the plan of God’s salvation, then their continued presence becomes insulting to the true church, their continued rejection of the Christian message a blasphemy, and ultimately their continued existence becomes a threat. At least, that’s how this idea has played out over the course of our history.
It is important to understand the statement about the kingdom being removed not as a judgment on Jews by Christians, but by one group of Jews on another, and one that is built not on identity or belief, but on fruit.
We don’t need to affirm St. Matthew’s supersessionist attitude toward the Pharisees in order to embrace his broader principle: the work of the vineyard is to produce fruit. When those who are entrusted with the vineyard fail to produce the fruits of justice and righteousness, they are in danger of losing their tenancy and having it taken away from them.
See, this parable follows right upon the parable we looked at last week—the parable of the two sons—a parable that reminded the listener that it is easy to say “Yes” to God; the more important thing is doing what God requires of you. Jesus noted that for this reason, the tax collectors and prostitutes who were responding to John’s baptism and Jesus’ gospel would go in ahead of the chief priests and elders who declare their piety without ever acting on it.
Here, we see that the purpose of the vineyard is to bear fruit. It is not enough to simply have always been at that desk, or in that pew, or serving in that temple. We’re at that desk, in that pew, serving in that temple for a reason: to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness.
St. Matthew wants us to know that faith is known by its fruit because it is so easy to become entitled and complacent.
See, Christians have had it pretty good for a long time in the West, and especially in this country. So merged was American and Christian identity for so long that many of us thought that all we needed to do to be Christian was show up. The culture did the rest of the work for us.
But one of the great blessings of increasing religious diversity in the country is that it forces us to reconsider what it means to be Christian. If Christianity is not simply a synonym with “American”—perhaps it never actually was—then what is it? How do we do Christianity rather than simply just be Christians?
We look to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters and see communities engaged in doing things to make clear their faith and we come to understand that Christian isn’t a label; it’s a way of life. It’s a life given to serving in God’s vineyard, to producing fruit for the Kingdom of God.
There is one final point to be made. About the purpose of fruit that is planted
My maternal grandparents used to have a garden on their property that would put most people’s gardens to shame. It was larger than the backyard I have at my current house.
I can remember being a kid and sitting there picking peas and beans. Putting them in large buckets for cleaning. Even plucking corn from the many stalks in the garden. There was so much food. There was no way my grandfather and grandmother could possibly eat all of the food that that garden produced.
And that is exactly the point.
The fruits of the kingdom—justice and righteousness—are not for ourselves alone; they’re for everyone. St. Matthew wants us to know that faith is known by its fruit because if we can bear the fruit of faith, it will bring sustenance to a world thirsting and hungering for righteousness.
The parable of the vineyard is a warning against entitlement and complacency. The tenants of the vineyard have forgotten that the vineyard does not belong to them, but to the landowner, and oppose anyone who reminds them as much, even the landowner’s son.
This warning to the religious leadership of first century Palestine is a warning to us today and a reminder: the work of the people of God is to bear fruit for the Kingdom, and in so doing, to bring blessing to the whole world.
Exodus 20:1–4, 7–9, 12–20 • Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
Matthew 21:33–46 • “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds because they regarded him as a prophet.