Lectionary blog for Oct. 8
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15;
Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

In Isaiah, 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; they produced bad; wild grapes came forth, grapes unsuited to the making of good wine. God looks the situation over and says, in effect, “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 this field. Let the walls and the watchtower crumble. Go somewhere else where I can be more productive.” The prophet’s point is simple – God’s people had become an embarrassment, and God was ready to abandon them.

Psalm 80 is a response to this abandonment. Verses eight and nine retell the same tale: God planting the people 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.” Verses 12 and 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.” Then 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 story 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.

A variation of the theme

Matthew picks up on this story line; the people of God as the Lord’s vineyard, and the cycle of rebellion and renewal throughout history. In 21:33, Jesus tells the same story as Isaiah and the Psalmist tell, but he takes it in a new direction. In Jesus’ version, the owner rents out the vineyard to tenants and leaves town. After a while, at harvest time, the owner sends servants to collect the rent. And the tenants, do an astoundingly cruel and stupid thing; they beat one of the servants and kill the other. The owner is amazingly tolerant and, well, there’s no nice way to put this, he’s kind of stupid. We all know that it is extremely dumb 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, he sends his son. How stupid is that? I mean, would you send your child into a situation like that? Sure enough, the tenants beat and kill the son of the owner.

At this point Jesus stops telling the story, he leaves it open-ended. He looks at his hearers and asks them to finish the it. “So, what would the owner do?” 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 of God, goes on. God still seeks good fruit. Rather than pointing any fingers or patting ourselves on the back, 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 inconvenient. We must realize how often our failure to bear good fruit, our lack of love and charity, our devotion to our own welfare to the detriment of others, are an embarrassment to God.

Rather than pointing any fingers or patting ourselves on the back, 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 inconvenient.

The Word of God is a powerful stone and Jesus says, “those who fall on this stone will be broken to pieces” (Matthew 21:44). Yet, when we listen honestly, openly, humbly, God’s word pounds on our hearts, shatters our ego, destroys our self-serving pride. In that very brokenness lies our 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 that 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.

Today, the Word of God calls upon us to examine our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. It invites us to discover what sort of vines, what kind of tenants we are. Are we bearing “good fruit?” Are we giving God appropriate attention and service? Are we living our lives as faithful caretakers of God’s holy 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. Thanks be to God!

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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