Rev. Cyndi Banks; Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 22—Year A; Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Vineyards. Vineyards. We just can’t seem to get out of the vineyard. Two weeks ago, we had the story about the early-morning/all-day laborers in the vineyard who got paid the same as the slacker-one-hour laborers. Last week, we had the parable about the two sons—the one who said he wouldn’t go work in the vineyard but did and the one who said he would go work but didn’t. And this week, we are back in the vineyard again. This time, Jesus tells a story about a landlord who planted a vineyard. [He] 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.
Context here is important. Jesus is in the temple. It’s the last week of his life. The day before this one, he had turned over the tables of the moneychangers. He is in a heated debate with the chief priests and Pharisees over authority. And this image of the vineyard would have immediately called to mind the passage from Isaiah 5 that we also heard this morning.
In that story, it is the Lord God who has tenderly planted the vineyard, dug it, cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines, built a watchtower in the midst of it, hewed out a wine vat in it, and he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And if we’re not catching it, the Isaiah passage spells it out pretty clearly for us—the house of Israel, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judah—they weren’t living in the ways of justice or right relationship—they are the wild grapes.
God’s heart is broken. God has tended his beloved people so carefully, poured so much of his divine being into them, and they’ve gone all wild on him. And broken hearts oftentimes take us in two directions—we either lash out, or we disengage. In some ways, God does both in the Isaiah story—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.
The chief priests and Pharisees knew this story from Isaiah and the vengeance rained down upon those wild grapes, at least, that’s the story they told themselves about the Isaiah story. But as Jesus tells this story, the harvest isn’t wild grapes; it’s a really good harvest of really good grapes.
Okay, so pretend you’re the chief priests and Pharisees, and you’re the jury at this trial, and you are about to hear this testimony after which you will be asked to render a judgment. Here it goes.
When the harvest time had come, [this landowner] 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.
Jesus pauses. He has those listening in the palm of his hand. Remember chief priests and Pharisees, context, you know your scriptures and Isaiah is in your head. The wild grapes got destroyed. These tenants have been good farmers, but horrible at relationship with the landowner. Are these tenants good or bad? (pause) See how fast we can go there? Now, in fairness to the tenants, maybe the landowner had been giving them a raw deal for decades, and they were fed up with the hard work and low wages for their labor. However, seizing, beating, killing, stoning representatives of the landowner—slave and son alike—not an okay response.
Jesus then asks the chief priests and Pharisees to render their judgment—“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Okay, chief priests and Pharisees—what will the owner do? Well? Think of the wild grapes; what will the owner do? (pause)
[The chief priests and Pharisees] 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.” Oh, those tenants are lower than wild grapes; they’ve gone straight to wretches put to a miserable death, the vineyard ripped out of their hands and given to another. Oh, the delight of vengeance, the taste of retribution; it is sweeter than honey in the mouth. It’s that part deep inside of us that lights up when someone gets their just deserts, and even though that “deserts” is spelled differently, it just sounds delicious.
But Jesus is telling a parable, and parables always flip us on our head.
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’?
“Uh, yeah Jesus, we’ve heard that scripture, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“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.”
“Uh, yeah Jesus, still no idea. But I’ve got the feeling you are talking about us. I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but I know I don’t like it. You are way messing with my frame, and the only thing I want to right now is lock you up, get you back in some sort of box, because I don’t want to think as radically big as I think you are asking me to think. I want to arrest you in the worst way, but the crowds, they love you, but if it’s between your vision, and mine, you’ve got to go.”
Sound familiar? Your world view is challenging mine, so I have to destroy you. Vengeance, retribution, just deserts—this is the air we breathe; this is in every myth that informs our action at every level of society; this is played out on playgrounds and lunch rooms and board rooms and halls of government. Vengeance, retribution, just deserts—this is played out between nations and within nations and among rivals of every conceivable stripe; this is played out on our streets and on the byways of social media; but know this—this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is the stone that the builders rejected that becomes the cornerstone? (pause) Let’s think about this in a new way. Over and over in Matthew, Jesus speaks of it. The cornerstone? It is forgiveness. It is mercy. “How often should I forgive, Lord, seven times? Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” When asked how to pray, Jesus taught, “Forgive us, as we have forgiven others.” Forgiveness is the only stone strong enough to secure the foundation upon which the building rests. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes. There is this very human part of us that wants vengeance, that wants to get even, that wants you to get yours when you’ve hurt me. Jesus gets that part of us. My goodness, if anyone had reason to get even, it was him, but he responds with his life. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is hard to will. In fact, I’m not sure you can will it. When it comes, it always comes as gift, a something that is at work inside of us that comes from way beyond us. And when it comes, it is amazing!
And here, we need to take a little detour because there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to forgiveness. Forgiveness is not amnesia. And, forgiveness does not erase the need for accountability in our relationships. In fact, accountability is an essential component in the process of forgiveness, and forgiveness is an essential component of accountability. We can’t pull these two apart because in the process of forgiving, we take several profoundly vulnerable and courageous steps—we acknowledge that an action of another has hurt our heart, we step out and make that hurt known, and we signal our willingness to move through and beyond the hurt toward a promised land of healing that may seem quite beyond our imagining in the midst of the hurt. Accountability begins with this gut-wrenching, vulnerable, exposed place of honesty. Accountability begins with a willingness to risk telling the truth of our experience. Forgiveness and accountability—these two go hand-in-hand. They don’t always lead to reconciliation—that takes a commitment on both parties part, but reconciliation is impossible without both forgiveness and accountability. We have a lot more to learn about how these two go hand-in-hand, and Jesus will show us the way if we signal our willingness to step out into this territory. Okay, detour ended; back to the main road—we’ve still got a bit more to travel.
There is this little matter of breaking and shattering. The false self, that part of us that refuses to let go of our rightness, that part of us that clings to our sense of offendedness like life support, this stone of forgiveness and mercy will break our false self to pieces. To release our right to vengeance, to let go of seeking retribution, to release our desire to see people get what they deserve, it shatters us. But then, amidst all the rubble, we touch a new place, a beautiful place, an amazing place, a place of freedom and peace. It is here that we touch the cornerstone, the True Self, the Christ who lives in us and fills us with a capacity to love and forgive that is quite simply beyond us.
But here’s the deal—you can’t get to that place, except through the shattering. The chief priests and Pharisees, they couldn’t go there. They refused to die to be born anew, and believe me, it will feel like dying, and it is labor to be born anew.
God doesn’t want vengeance, not anymore; in fact, I don’t think God ever did. Even in Isaiah where it sounds like that’s exactly what God wanted—I don’t think so. I think there, God was saying, “You want to grow wild, you have that right. You want to have a go at it without hedges and walls and limits and examination and pruning away, you want to have a go at living without doing your work—go ahead, you have that freedom, but your life will be out of control, and that will be a waste.” That’s not vengeance; that’s natural consequences. And God loves us enough to grant us the freedom to experience them, if that’s what we choose.
God doesn’t seek vengeance—Jesus, his death and his resurrection, is living proof that God seeks life, new life, forgiven life, life filled with mercy, life pulled from the ashes.
Stumble on this stone. Let forgiveness break you to pieces—that forgiveness which you need to receive, that forgiveness which you need to bestow—let it break you to pieces. Let it shatter you, and then let it be the first stone in building a new life. This is our call—together, let us start from this stone at this corner. It’s time to build up a new world from the foundation of forgiveness and mercy, and never have we needed it more. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC; October 5, 2014