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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, 5 October 2008

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80
Philippians 3:14-21
Matthew 21:33-43

Right after I got back from my Summer vacation, I began a conversation with you all about the Parables that we have continued over the past few months. I have talked about how parables, especially the parables that we believe originated with Jesus himself, are little stories that take their examples from every day life. They are little stories that resonate in profound ways with our experience and reveal a truth about the way the world goes. More profoundly, in fact, they reveal truths about the nature of God’s kingdom, God’s rule.

We must remember, however, that there are other kinds of parables, just like there are other styles of learning. For all of us intuitive types (us “N”s for you Meyers-Briggs afficionados), the parables of Jesus are just right for how we learn. But not everyone learns and hears in the same way and so there are different kinds of stories that help us connect our story with The Story. Today’s Gospel, then, is an example of another kind of parable, one that combines allegory—with characters representing specific others—and typology—making connections between God’s work with Israel and Jesus’ work.

This story of the landowner is, like Jesus’ parables, taken from daily life, in this case, the practice of large landowners letting out equipment and parcels of land to tenants and sending their servants to collect the rents and produce. Here we also are shown tenants who seek to own the land they work and who carry out an ill-conceived plan of mayhem and murder to achieve their ends. Where this story differs from other, simpler, parables is that as the story unfolds, we begin to hear a narrative that sounds very familiar. We hear about a landowner whom the tenants did not regularly see who sent servants whom the tenants did not heed, and indeed, whom they injured. We hear about the landowner getting fed-up with his people and finally sending his own son as his messenger, the ultimate servant of the master, whom the tenants “cast ... out of the vineyard, and killed.”

This telling, then, is certainly (and one could say heavy-handedly) too pointed to simply be an analogy drawn from daily life that we just “get.” No, it is clearly retelling, in familiar and contemporary terms, the story of God sending prophets to Israel who were routinely ignored and ridiculed and finally, “in these last days” (as the Prayer Book puts it), sending his son, Jesus Christ, to bring God’s message of repentance to a broken and troubled world. More than this, in fact, Matthew’s readers would have been familiar with these images of the vineyard as an allegory for Israel and the landowner as an allegory of God, for all this language is drawn from the passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah that we also heard this morning. Isaiah could not have been plainer: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!”

Matthew’s hearers would have been intimately familiar with the history of Israel’s continuing disobedience and of God’s continuing work to bring them back to him. Matthew’s hearers would have been intimately familiarity with Isaiah’s words and images as they heard this parable of the vineyard and would have made the connection. In literary terms this is called intertextuality, when a new text relies so heavily on the recognition of an other, underlying and older text, to make its meaning most clear. Matthew’s community would have known the older text and seen it immediately in the story about Jesus. This would have underlined the connection between Jesus’ work now with the work God had been doing all along with Israel. They would have recognised in Matthew’s story about Jesus a continuation of a pattern of divine activity. Indeed, as God had acted towards Israel in sending the prophets, who were rejected, so now God sends his Son to accomplish that work. And here we have what scholars call typology, which is a way of telling stories that recognises that God’s purpose is steadfast and that as he acted in certain ways in the past, he continues to act in the world today. (1)

Indeed, this rejection of God’s messengers, and especially of his Son, will have consequences in the world.

When therefore 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 let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”

This sounds very harsh, and indeed it is. In fact, this passage has been used to prove the case for Christianity’s place supplanting Judaism. The vineyard will be taken away from you (Israel) and given to another “nation.” In fact, what Matthew meant, as he addressed his Gospel to a Jewish-Christian community, was that there would be new leaders, a new “group of people,” which is what the word for “nation” also means, who would understand what God was achieving in Jesus Christ and who will build a new foundation with the “stone that the builders have rejected.” The hope for the future of Matthew’s community, for the people who read and heard this Gospel, is that the Son’s death is not the end, that the rejection and death of the Son produces a new reality, one that will rightly produce the fruits of the vineyard.

This story, then, is not a simple, intuitive parable, but rather a complex, multi- layered, and highly literary way of talking about Jesus and his mission, about that mission’s relationship to God’s work in the past, and about how this all has a real effect on people’s lives in the here and now. For this reason and because of certain other elements, including the text’s direct quotation of the Greek Bible, the reference to
Jesus’ death, and certain phrases that seem refer to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, most scholars agree that this is not an original saying of Jesus.(2) This parable, then, probably originated with Mark, was taken over by Matthew, and its emphasis on the future of Israel was sharpened as a lesson for the community to whom the Gospel was addressed.

Indeed, rather than being an attack on Israel, it is a scathing critique of Israel’s leaders, and of all leaders, who try to erect roadblocks in the way of God and his messengers. These are the same leaders who we heard about in last week’s Gospel who said “yes,” to God but in the end did not act to do his will. These are the same leaders who looked down upon the prostitutes and tax collectors, about whom we have heard so much in the past few weeks and who may have initially resisted God’s hopes and dreams for them, but who in the end acted and ascended to do the will of God. Matthew’s parable of the vineyard shows us cynical and dishonest community leaders whose resistance to God’s will for creation is nothing in the face of his steadfast love for us. For indeed, the parable is also a story of God’s unwavering love for Israel in continually and eternally seeking reconciliation of God and humankind. It speaks of God time after time sending his messengers in the face of resistance and violence. It speaks of God who loved the world so much that in the end he sent and gave his Son so that in his sacrifice something new could emerge and all God’s people might repent, turn their lives around, and return to God. This story is an attack on faithless leaders who do not hear and do the word the word of God.

In our lives, sometimes we are those leaders, and we turn from God and seek our own selfish interest before that of God and of our neighbours. Sometimes, however, and I hope and pray more of the time than not, we are those tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners from the story of the calling of Matthew, we are and can be those into whose hands God turns over the vineyard. We are and can be the new generation of leaders who seeks to conform our will with God’s will. And although we will fail, although we will fall short, we can be guaranteed that God will keep on working with us, keep on sending his messengers, in the form of our brothers and sisters and of the Holy Ghost, to keep us on the right path, to keep us tending the garden and rendering those fruits, that service, right back to the God who loves us more than we can imagine.

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Jerome, 30 September 2008

(1) The best study of typology remains G. W. H. Lampe and K. J. Woollcombe, Essays on Typology, Studies in Biblical Theology (London : S.C.M. Press, 1957).

(2) Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagena 1(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 303.

©2008 Andrew Charles Blume