I have a friend, who writes her sermons with the question in mind--”where is the grace”. And, this week as I struggled with this parable from Matthew I found myself searching, digging deep for the grace in the midst of a story that is, quite frankly, horrific.
Taken as allegory, we have a story in which we identify the wealthy landowner as God. The tenants are the Pharisees, the Isrealite people who kill God’s messengers. Then, as a last resort, we have a son, the son of the wealthy landowner, who is then read as Jesus. He is killed as well. Then, the landowner, God, kills all of the tenants and puts new tenants in place--presumably tenants who will follow the rules.
Now, I find this story vile. I find it vile largely because it tends to lend itself to self righteousness and vindication on the part of Christians--see we have the true faith and you folks who don’t listen to God are going to get in trouble!!
Thankfully, this story is not an allegory, it is a parable. And parables are not as simple as we might like to think. In fact,in Matthew 13:1-9, Jesus said that he told his parables so that the crowds might NOT understand.
Now, I currently spend a small bit of my week in a crowd that few would expect to have much understanding of scripture--this crowd is comprised of the kindergarten Sunday School I am currently co-teaching at St John the Baptist in Linden Hills. However, the depth of their understanding continuously astonishes me. Last week as the children worked on making placemats--a presumable simple and uncontroversial task--one of the 5 year olds looked up at me. “Jesus dies” he stated emphatically, and with no uncertainty. The child next to him looked confused and worried. In response I asked--”is that the end of the story, that he dies? Or is there more?”
Now all of the five year olds were looking at us...waiting to hear the rest of the story. “He comes back alive” replied the child. They all nodded, I could sense a bit of relief.
When I recall this moment, this question, “is that the end of the story?” I find that this parables surprises me because, when I was able to move beyond the allegorical reading, I noticed something crucial--I had the wrong ending to the story!
The people to whom Jesus is speaking are the one’s who tell us that the landowner will “put those wretches to a miserable death”--NOT Jesus. Jesus holds out a different ending and the beautiful truth to this ugly parable is that the end of the story is NOT death and destruction. The audience does not have the final word, Jesus does. And, the end of the story is the truth of a God who has taken what is broken, taken what has been rejected and made it beautiful and whole. The son is not dead, he comes back, and he carries with him the love and forgiveness which we all so desperately need in this world.
Now, it would be lovely to end here--see God loves us and that is that! But, I can’t ignore the rest of the parable, for Jesus continues. He tells the crowd that the kingdom will be taken from them and there will be destruction. And, this that gets us back to the ending that I believe firmly is not “true”--the ending that ends on the cross with “he dies.” An ending that God has rejected, an ending that does not reflect the grace of the Christ I follow.
Because, just as I cannot look only at the portion of the text that back up my own beliefs, I cannot look at this parable without looking at how this parable appears in the Gospel of Luke. And in this comparison I find that there is more grace to be had.
The theology of Israel in Luke is that the Israelites will play a central role in the kingdom of God--the invitation to follow Jesus in Luke comes as an invitation to be grafted on, to be joined with the Israelites. In Luke the vineyard of Israel is not taken away to be given to others--rather it is opened up to new workers. It is an expansive claim for God’s love--not a limited claim.
I feel as if I have set up my extrapolation of this text as a kind of choose your own adventure story. Do you remember those? You got to the end of the chapter and you made a choice between two different options and depending on which choice you made you got a different ending?
But, in this story God makes one choice and reflects a grace filled truth, the choice to send the son and the ultimate truth which is the love of God. The love of a God who continuously liberates us from injustice and oppression, the God who guides us to a place, a kingdom where mercy is the rule and compassion is the guide. This love runs throughout scripture, “I brought you out of the house of slavery”; “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstones and it is amazing in our eyes”; “Christ Jesus has made us his own”.
And, so here we are, on a glorious fall day and we are faced with choices. And the only choices that we can make in good conscience are those which reflect the grace of God. Choices which allow us to find a place for all in the building and the body of Christ.
Like the Pharisees, like the Israelites--we Christians will fall short. But, in the scripture today we are shown the truth of God’s love and reminded that God has led us out of slavery. And in the parable, Jesus, reminds us that God will come to us again and again--no matter the betrayal, no matter the hate, no matter how we receive the messengers of God, God will continue to seek us out.
The God we proclaim in our liturgy is the one God, the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
What will we do with our freedom? Which endings will we choose for our own lives?