SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
What would happen to the earth if people suddenly disappeared? The History Channel recently presented a dramatic documentary entitled Life after People, a fascinating blend of science fiction and true natural science, in order to answer that question. As it turns out, the world can go on very nicely-perhaps better than ever- without us. Almost immediately after our departure, nature would begin to reclaim our great cities. Weeds would break through concrete and asphalt; subways would become haunts for coyotes, raccoons and black bears. Vines would envelope our skyscrapers and national monuments as rust and rot begin to destabilize them. There is a good chance that civilization and culture might eventually re-emerge in some other non-human species. This documentary is a reminder of what we all should know deep down inside, namely, that we are not as important as we think we are. After our extinction, life will go on.
About a year ago the religion section of the Huffington Post featured some photographs of abandoned churches throughout the United States and Europe. You can view them by clicking on this link. These pictures, both beautiful and heartbreaking, are eerily similar to the digitally produced videos in Life after People portraying our cityscapes as they might look one hundred years after the demise of humanity. After the extinction of the church, life goes on.
In our gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus tells a parable about some tenant farmers who over-estimated their own importance, made some bad decisions and, as a result, lost both their tenancy and their lives. The tenants forgot that they were tenants. And in much the same way, we human beings forget that we are gardeners placed on the planet to till and tend it. Our ecological problems stem from our tendency to act as though we own the place. So, too, those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus tend to forget that the church belongs to Jesus, not to us. When we begin to treat the church as our own private club, an organization that exists to provide services for our convenience and an institution designed to meet our needs, we are treading on dangerous ground. What God gives, God can take away. That applies both to our planet and our church.
But here is another interesting fact. Despite the decline of Christianity in Europe and North America, the church as a whole is growing faster than at any time in history. Today there are more Lutherans in Ethiopia alone than in the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When Namibia, Liberia, Kenya and other African nations are thrown into the mix, it is fair to say that Lutheranism is more African than it is American or European. Similar parallels exist among other Christian traditions as well. The church is doing fine-just not here.
I often wonder whether the judgment visited on the tenants in Jesus’ parable has not already overtaken our churches in Europe and North America. I wonder sometimes whether “the kingdom of God” has not already been “taken away” from us and “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21:43. I wonder whether we have left God no recourse other than to let this section of the vineyard lie fallow until all the hateful, ugly and insensitive words spoken in the name of Jesus are finally forgotten; all the neglectful and selfish acts of the church lost to memory. Perhaps the land needs to heal before the good news of Jesus Christ can be heard as truly good news once again. Naturally, I pray that this judgment has not yet befallen us, that there is still time for repentance and renewal, that the Spirit of God might still blow mightily upon the churches in our land and give them life. I have great hope for renewal in my time, but I know too well that I dare not presume upon it.
This Sunday’s lesson is an oracle from the prophet Isaiah who lived and ministered in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. His writings are found in Isaiah 1-39 along with much other material from various sources. For some more general background on the prophet Isaiah, see Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
The comparison of Israel to a vineyard or to grape vines is a common one. It is found, for example, in our psalm for this Sunday. See also Hosea 10:1-2; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 19:10-14. The vineyard is also a common metaphor for a bride. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd) p. 60. Thus, the hearers are put on notice that this song is about more than a disappointing harvest. It is about betrayal at the deepest, most intimate level. The word for “choice vines” planted in the vineyard is a translation of the Hebrew word “soreq,” which means either red grapes or grapes native to the valley of Sorek west of Jerusalem. Because Isaiah’s poem bears many similarities to songs composed for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, it is likely that the oracle was proclaimed to the people at this time, perhaps when they were gathered in the temple. Ibid. 59. Utilizing the language of praise and thanksgiving, the prophet composes a damning indictment against his people whose lives are as far from covenant faithfulness as wild grapes are from cultivated fruit.
After shocking his audience with this disturbing poem at a time when all are in the mood for celebration, the prophet asks the people to judge between the grower and his vineyard. What more could the grower have done? And more importantly, what must now be done with the vineyard? We are not privy to any response from Isaiah’s audience. If they have been following the prophet’s allegory, they already have an inkling of what will be revealed in verse 7, “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!” The prophet declares the grower’s intention for the vineyard, which should come as no surprise. Land that is unproductive needs to lie fallow for a year or two. Rather than sheltering the land, clearing the soil of rocks and weeds, it must be left exposed to the elements.
Although Professor Kaiser dates this oracle early in the career of Isaiah predating the Syro-Ephraimite conflict of 734 B.C.E., it seems to me that this oracle fits well with conditions under the reign of King Hezekiah following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Isaiah’s audience could hardly miss the dire threat of invasion, destruction and exile implied by the abandonment of the vineyard. They had, after all, witnessed that very fate visited upon the Northern Kingdom. Whatever the case may be, the clear implication is that Judah has failed to produce the fruits of righteousness and justice that her God had a right to expect in view of his kindness and faithfulness to her. For that she can anticipate the consequences all too graphically demonstrated in the fate of Israel to the North.
As dire as is the threat of judgment, there is some grace here as well. After all, the ultimate objective of abandoning the land to lie fallow is its regeneration. However convinced Isaiah may have been that Judah’s justly deserved conquest and exile were near, the book as a whole testifies to God’s determination to stand with Israel throughout the time of her punishment and bring her through judgment to redemption.
Using the same striking imagery of the vineyard employed by Isaiah in passing judgment upon the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the psalmist frames his/her prayer for salvation as a plea for God to come and attend once again his “vineyard” which has been inexplicably abandoned. Unlike the prophet, the psalmist does not make the connection between Israel’s unfaithfulness and her national calamity. S/he sees the pitiable condition of his/her nation as the consequence of God’s failure to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. Prayers such as this offend our Christian sense of piety and one commentator suggests that such sentiments as are expressed in this psalm constitute “an unworthy notion about the nature of God.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 157. But prayer has less to do with our theologies about Good and more to do with our relationship with God. As all people of mature faith know, the feeling of desertion and abandonment by God is very real. Genuine faith gives expression to what is real-not to what pious convention dictates. Look no further than Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross for confirmation of that point! Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.
Though the psalmist assumes that God’s displeasure with Israel is at the root of the nation’s troubles, the very fact that s/he brings his/her complaint to God demonstrates the conviction that God has not rejected Israel for all time and is still open to her prayers. The psalmist is convinced that the God of the Exodus will finally turn and show compassion for his troubled people. This psalm demonstrates how Israel’s conviction that the loss of her land, temple and royal line represented God’s judgment on her covenant faithlessness did not come in a flash. It developed over a long period of reflection upon her covenant traditions, the preaching of the prophets and her experiences in exile. There was for Israel a long journey from the raw pain of conquest and exile to a mature understanding of both God’s judgment upon her past and God’s promise of a new beginning.
Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
Whereas the lessons for the last two weeks came from Paul’s “Letter of Friendship,” this week’s reading comes from his third letter of warning against rival missionaries urging gentile believers to receive circumcision. While Paul’s opponents in his letter to the Galatians were partisans of Jewish believers from the church in Palestine, his rivals in Philippi appear to be more distantly connected to Judaism. They might even be gentiles who have enthusiastically embraced diaspora Judaism and seek to draw Paul’s churches into their orbit. This would explain Paul’s appeal to his Jewish credentials. “You want Jewish?” says Paul. “I’ll show you Jewish!” Paul then launches into his family heritage; his upbringing; and his education. He crowns all of these fine credentials by pointing out that, “as to righteousness under the law” he was “blameless” even though his zeal led him to persecute the church. Vs. 6.
Clearly, Paul has made the case that his Jewish roots are genuine unlike those of his opponents. But then Paul goes on to say that his flawless pedigree does not amount to a hill of beans. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Vs. 7. Paul does not disown his Jewishness. He remains proudly Jewish. Nevertheless, it is not his solid Jewish heritage that makes him righteous. Righteousness for Paul is not first and foremost a matter of heritage, practices and tradition. Righteousness is relational. One is made righteous, not by following the right practices or believing the right doctrine, but by trusting the right person. “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Vss. 8-9.
Paul then expresses the hope that he might know Jesus and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings to become like Jesus in his death. His hope is that in so doing he may share in Jesus’ resurrection. That all comes across as circular. Yet it makes sense. God’s resurrection of Jesus is God’s “yes” to Jesus’ obedient life and faithful death. To know the resurrected Jesus is to know the depth of God’s love, the immeasurable value of God’s promises and God’s determination to keep those promises. To become like Jesus in his death is to share the confidence of Jesus in the promises of his heavenly Father in the face of death. It is to live without fear of death.
Paul states quite honestly that he has not achieved such perfect confidence yet. He is plagued by a past that includes the persecution of Christ and his church. He struggles with personal impediments to his ministry. II Corinthians 12:7-10. Yet Paul refuses to let his present life be dictated by his past. Instead, he is motivated by God’s promised future that is made present to him in Jesus’ resurrection. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.” Vs. 14. As hopelessly corny as it may sound, today really is the first day of the rest of the disciple’s life. But this is not based on mere optimism. It is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus which is our own through faith in his promises.
The gospel re-orientates our lives. Rather than living out of the past, being shaped by our scares and having our relationships with others determined by the age old conflicts into which we were born, we are called to live now in God’s future achieved through the reconciling power of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. That changes everything!
The gospel, like our lesson from Isaiah and our psalm, employ the image of the vineyard. But that is where the similarity ends. For Isaiah, the vineyard was the rebellious nation that forgot the kindness and mercy of her God, neglected the covenant and produced the fruit of violence and injustice rather than faithfulness and peace. For the psalmist, the vineyard is a broken people struggling to understand why it has been forsaken by its God. Jesus’ focus in the gospel parable is not so much on the vineyard as it is on the tenants responsible for its care and for giving to the landlord his share of its produce. The parable is thus directed against the leaders of the people who, as we have seen, rejected the baptism of John just as their ancestors rejected the witness of the prophets. Matthew 21:31-32; Matthew 23:29-39. Now God is sending to them his Son. How will the leaders react? Will they finally respect the Son and acknowledge God’s rightful reign over Israel? Of course, we know the answer to that question-or do we? As a religious leader myself, this parable gives me profound discomfort. I am forced to ask myself whether I have faithfully tended the vineyard and offered the first fruits of my labor to the Lord, or whether I have treated my calling as a profession, put in my time and been content to take my pay and go home. Is my section of the vineyard struggling because the tenant in charge of it has been lazy, complacent and self-centered? The questions raised in my introductory remarks hang like a cloud over this story.
The parable presents us with a couple of imponderables. Why would the owner of the vineyard send his son into a situation so dangerous and hostile that it already cost him the lives of some of his servants? On what basis did the tenants determine that murdering the owner’s son would result in their getting title to the vineyard? Some scholars have speculated that the tenants erroneously assumed that the owner had died and that title had passed to his son. Assuming that the son was the owner’s only son and assuming further that the son had no heirs of his own, there would be no one to lay claim to the vineyard in the son’s absence. The problem, of course, is that this explanation relies on quite a number of assumptions outside the scope of the text.
Professor William R. Herzog, II has an interesting take on this parable (as he does on a number of Jesus’ parables). According to Herzog, the parable is about the conversion of farm land supporting subsistence farmers into cash crops, i.e., grapes for wine. Herzog, II, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech, (c. 1994 by William R. Herzog II, pub. by Westminster/John Knox Press) p. 108. It is likely, Herzog contends, that the vineyard was taken from distressed farmers who now operate the vineyard as tenants and sustain themselves by growing vegetables along the edges of what once was their own land. Ibid. The tenants, having been “forced beyond the narrow parameters required for their survival…had no choice but to rebel.” Ibid. The sending of the owner’s son is explained in terms of class expectations. “The father’s reasoning…reflects his social location and class attitude. He speaks as a confident elite who is certain that peasant tenants, even rebellious ones, will respect his son. Seen within the framework of ruling-class attitudes and assumptions, the father’s reasoning makes sense.” Ibid. at 110.
This interpretation requires us to lift the parable out of its context in the gospel and insert it into a speculative reconstruction of the setz un leben or “historical context.” In order for this reading to work, we need to reimagine a so called “historical Jesus” apart from the ideological distortions of the early church’s witness. This age old quest for the so called “historical Jesus” and his true message is, in my humble opinion, a wasted effort. Nevertheless, if you would like to embark on that journey, Herzog’s book is a great place to start. He is thoughtful, thorough and articulate. Please give my regards to Slender Man and the Tooth Fairy should you encounter them along the way-a prospect about as likely as finding the “historical Jesus.”
According to the parable as we have it in Matthew, there appears to be no ground for animosity on the part of the tenants against their landlord. The text is silent as to how the land was acquired. It appears, however, as though the landlord has made a significant investment in the land and understandably expects a return. That the actions of the tenants appear inexplicable goes to the parable’s point, namely, that Israel’s leaders have ruled her people in their own self-interested way rejecting the warnings of the prophets and of John the Baptist. Sending one’s son into the violent and volatile setting of a rebel occupied vineyard might not make sense from the standpoint of an absentee landlord who is just trying to get a handle on his investment property. But the landowner is God and the vineyard is God’s chosen people. To his own beloved people, God makes God’s self vulnerable in order to achieve reconciliation and peace.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Vs. 42. This is a quotation from Psalm 118:22-23. The “chief corner stone” is probably the main stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.
The stone has a dual function in the gospel. It is the cornerstone of faith, but for unbelief it is a stumbling block. “The one who falls upon this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Vs. 44. This is possibly an allusion to Isaiah 8:14. “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” It might also stem from a popular Jewish midrash: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot! Either way, woe to the pot!” cited at Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 880. Either way, the immovability and permanence of the stone stand in stark contrast to the seeming vulnerability of the landlord’s son. The “stone” sayings might be said to reveal the true state of things that the tenants in the parable misunderstand to their own undoing.