Proper 22, A
Martin Luther once claimed that sometimes you have to squeeze a Biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. This is one of those biblical passages.
Honestly, I started this week already wrung out – wrung out from headlines of the incomprehensible random deadly violence in Las Vegas, wrung out from evolving news of death and violence on a huge scale in Myanmar, wrung out from continuing escalation of preparations to perpetrate mass destruction by nuclear weapons.
The Gospel, long my ally in a search for hope and peace and love and justice, this week greeted me with beatings and stonings and killings, followed by plans for divine retribution, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” paving the way for notions of an exclusionary, aloof, angry, vengeful God. I cannot in good faith preach this version of God. This is not a God I know.
So, we squeeze for the Gospel, for the Good news.
First, some context. Jesus is having a tough week. He’s no longer preaching and teaching and healing from boats and mountainsides. He’s in Jerusalem. He’s already tipped over the money changers’ tables at the temple, He’s challenged the religious authorities on their own turf. He’s angered powerful people with a truth they had no wish to hear. His end approaches and he is running out of time for subtleties.
Jesus tells His harshest critics and most adamant enemies, this wild, violent, improbable story – one which his audience of chief priests and pharisees would recognize immediately as hearkening back to Isaiah’s love song. He manages to have the religious authorities pronounce their own sentence by their own sense of justice. The brutal words of retribution, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death”, come from the mouths of the chief priests and pharisees – not from the mouth of Jesus. Jesus replies, pointedly not with “yeah verily and forsooth”, not with confirmation of that death sentence or inevitable propagation of violence, but rather with scripture from the Psalms,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Jesus, stripped of all power, all influence, stripped even of his life, becomes the cornerstone, the steadfast base for the creation of new spiritual life.
The pharisees and the chief priests the tenants of the beloved’s vineyard have lost sight of the expectations of the Lord: justice not bloodshed, righteousness not cries. The loss of the kingdom follows their own break of relationship with the Lord of Hosts, not vengeful retribution of a cranky God.
“The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls,” says Jesus
“How often it is,” says the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie,
“How often it is”
while straining to see an answer
upon the distant horizon
I stub my toe
against the solution
at my feet.” (Suzanne Guthrie, Edge of the Enclosure)
It would be easy to distance ourselves from this story. The Pharisees and chief priests represent the villain in virtually every Gospel story, particularly in Gospel of Matthew. Matthew preached to a vulnerable Jewish religious minority, threatened by the establishment as represented by those groups. Indeed, this text has been preached for centuries in its strict allegorical sense: the landowner as God, the vineyard as Israel, the wicked tenants as the Jews and the Cornerstone as Jesus. It thus provided centuries of scriptural justification for antisemitism.
Even stripped of the misuse of this text encouraging antisemitism, banishing it safely to the confines of ancient history relieves us of the burden of its violence and retribution, as well as responsibility for that vineyard. It also robs us of the drips of good news leaking from this story.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.” We are the tenants now. We hold responsibility for protecting God’s oceans and skies, for loving God’s children – especially the unlovable ones, for feeding the hungry, for protecting the powerless, for speaking truth to the powerful, for re-envisioning justice in light of compassion rather than retribution, for squeezing out the Good News.
“And for me, this week,” writes one pastor, “that good news means in part that violence does not and will not have the last word. That the only response to violence is not more violence. That tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.” (David Lose)
Fr. Flor McCarthy, S.D.B. offers this:
Let us pray – Lord, you planted me on this earth.
You fenced me around with the love of family and friends.
Their care towered over me.
In the shelter of this tower I grew in safety and peace.
I put out early blossoms; I filled up with Leaves.
People had great hopes for me.
You had great hopes for me.
But now the year of my life is passing.
The harvest is approaching.
What fruit have I to show?
What if after all this care I had nothing to offer but sour grapes?
May you Lord have mercy on me,
and with your patient urging
help me to produce the fruits of Love.