Year A — The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)

Commentary for October 2, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Okay, how are you going to go wrong preaching the Decalogue? Actually, it’s quite a task. Our listeners have such a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to the Ten Commandments.

Truth be told, maybe we do, too.

The thing is, for most of us, we may have been there — we’ve heard these statements all of our lives — but perhaps we haven’t quite done that — kept the commandments, wholly (holy) that is.

I love the anecdote from Henry Blackaby (Google the name if you’re not a Baptist or have never heard of the guy) — during the days of Dr. Blackaby’s pastorate, a gentleman came to him concerned with how to know the “will of God” for his life. The gentle pastor’s question, in return: “Well, God has given you Ten Commandments; how are you doing with those?”

Psalm 19
Well, while we’re on the Bible’s greatest hits, we might as well add Psalm 19!

I love these familiar verses because they always remind me that the glory of God is on display — all the time! Day to day, the handiwork of God may be heard everywhere — if you can stop and listen. Night to night, you can come to know God just by opening your eyes and seeing what’s around you.

The written word of the Lord is beautiful and powerful, as well; we do well to keep it around us by the by, just like the heavens.

My good friend and colleague, Bubba #1, never preaches a sermon (I don’t believe) without praying the prayer of v.14. Good idea.

Isaiah 5:1-7
The text begins with a song — a “love song,” no less! But it ends with a dirge of destruction. The Lord is both angry and sorrowful over the results of God’s “planting” in the vineyard of God’s people.

A sobering question in the midst of our worship: what does God expect of us? What has God built and planted in our lives that should be producing a vintage crop?

Psalm 80:7-15
“Restore us, O Lord….”

Indeed, the plaintive cry of the psalm is a poignant response when we consider that our growth has not always been what it should have been.

Pruning and “cutting back” are natural rhythms of the vineyard; sometimes, so too is uprooting and replanting.

Philippians 3:4b-14
Pardon me for another Baptist reference — any of ya’ll ever get a Sunday School pin?

Once upon a time, Baptists gave them out for “perfect attendance” in the Bible study program of the church. They were exciting mostly for the children, but adults were known to strive for them, as well. One gentleman I know of had 17 of them, all connected together and pinned to his chest like the “fruit salad” of a decorated military commander. Seventeen years of perfect attendance — now that’s some record!

Paul puts the Pharisaical equivalent of his Sunday School pins on display in this text; “if anybody has done a good job and ought to boast about it, it’s me!” No matter your denominational heritage, I’m sure there must be comparative activities. We think we’ve done a lot in the service of Christ!

Skubala, Paul calls such efforts. One of those wonderful biblical onomatopoeias that sounds like what it is. Rubbish. Garbage. Trash. (all polite translations) Dung. Doo-doo. Shit.

Well, you won’t really be able to use that last rendering in the pulpit, I don’t suppose. But you get the idea. Our best, which is definitely what we should strive to give the Lord, is still far, far short of God’s glory. If not for Christ, we’re all in deep skubala!

Matthew 21:33-46
I admit I’m a fan; when it’s football time on Saturday, I’m tuning in to College Gameday. Lee Corso has made his catchphrase famous: “Not so fast, my friend!” He pulls his sidekicks Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler up short when he thinks they’re wrong.

Jesus give the Pharisees a big, “Not so fast, my friends!” with this harsh story of the vineyard. They know he is upstaging them, and that they can’t go against the crowds to put an end to his difficult message. Guess they’ll just have to listen one more time and wait for a better moment to get at him.

I hope we’re not guilty of the same ploy when we hear the tougher side of the gospel. We’ll just bide our time, listen to one more sermon, and find a way to get out of the gospel’s demands later.

Not so fast, my friend!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In three of our texts for today, an important image is played out. The Nation of Israel is portrayed as a Vineyard planted by God.

Each lesson uses this image to make an important point about God’s relationship to God’s people.

In the Isaiah text we hear the voice of God speaking. God says, “I cleared the land, I planted the grapes, I built a tower for protection, I dug out a wine press, I got everything ready;

but, the vines did not produce as God had hoped. The vines did not produce good fruit, instead they produced bad; wild grapes came forth, grapes unsuited to the making of good wine.

God looks the situation over and says, “Well, I did the best I could. I’ve done all I can. I can’t pour good money after bad. I’m going to abandon the field. Let the walls and the watchtower crumble. Go somewhere else where I can be more productive.”

Isaiah the prophet’s point is simple: the Nation of Israel had become an embarrassment and God was ready to abandon them.

The Psalm is a response to this abandonment. Verses 8 and 9 retell the same tale: God planting Israel in a new land; “You have brought a vine out of Egypt, you cast out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took root and filled the land.”

But verses 12 1nd 13 show the people’s bewilderment at being abandoned; “Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by may pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.”

And then, in verses 14 and 15, the people plead with God for forgiveness and restoration; “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”

Isaiah and Psalm 80 contain a major theme and plot line of the Hebrew Bible:

God’s showers God’s people with grace.
The people prosper.
The people forget God.
The people become “wild.”
God becomes angry and regrets making or saving or favoring the people.
God allows the people to suffer.
The people cry out for forgiveness.
God hears,
God forgives,
God heals and restores.

And so it goes: over and over and over again.

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew picks up on these two story lines; the Nation of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard and the cycle of rebellion and renewal throughout Israel’s history.

In verse 33 Jesus tells the same story as Isaiah and the Psalmist, but he takes it off in a new direction. In Jesus’ version, the owner rents out the Vineyard to tenants and leaves town.

After a while, at harvest time, in Hebrew, literally “the season of fruit,” the owner sends servants to collect the rent.

And the tenants, the sharecroppers, do an astoundingly cruel and stupid thing; they beat one of the servants and kill the other.

And the owner here is amazingly tolerant and, and, well, kind of stupid. I mean, it’s really silly to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. But that’s what the owner does. He sends more servants and they get beaten and killed. And then the son is sent.

How ridiculous is that? I mean, would you send your child into a situation like that? Really now?

And sure enough, the tenants beat and kill the son of the owner.

At this point Jesus stops telling the story, looks at his hearers and asks them to finish the story.

So what would the owner do? And the people say, “Simple, he would come with an army and kill the bad tenants and give the vineyard to good tenants.”

Right you are, Jesus says. “And the Kingdom of God, the true vineyard of the Lord, will be taken away from you!

You who reject the prophets and even the very son whom God had given to people who bear the fruit of the Kingdom.”

It would be easy for us to nod and say “Yes, that’s what happened. Those Jewish people were the bad tenants, so God took away the Kingdom and gave it to us Christians.”

It would be easy to say that. It would also be wrong.

Jesus was not talking to the Jews as a people, as a race, or as a religion. Jesus was talking to the religious leaders, the Chief Priests and Pharisees. The people are the vineyard, the leaders are the bad tenants.

The life of the vineyard, the Kingdom, goes on. And God still seeks good fruit. We in the church must listen to the word of judgment in these Bible lessons.

We must realize how often we fail to listen to and obey God’s Word because we find it an embarrassment in our modern world.

And we must realize how often our failure to bear good fruit, our lack of love and charity, are an embarrassment to God.

The Word of God is a powerful stone, Matthew says in verse 44,  pounding on our hearts, shattering our ego and self-serving pride; “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces . . . “

But in that very brokenness lies the opportunity for new life. The Word of God not only breaks us, it also heals us.

The crushing and critical word becomes the cornerstone of our lives, the foundation of a new vineyard, a vineyard which then bursts forth to overflowing with the fruits of the spirit: faith, hope and love.

Once we have come face to face with the ugly truth about ourselves, we are ready to hear the beautiful good news about God and God’s undying love for us in Christ.

Our Bible lessons for today call upon us to examine our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. They call us to discover what sort of vines, what kind of tenants we are.

Are we bearing Good Fruit? Are we giving God God’s due? Are we living our lives as faithful caretakers of God’s Vineyard?

If not, let us cry out with the Psalmist for forgiveness and new life.

Let us trust in the Gospel promise that God will hear, God will forgive, God will restore, God will save.

Amen and Amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A — The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)

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