*Another parable—and this one might be the most depressing yet! We have a landowner who buys, plants, builds, and then leases a vineyard, and travels to another country. Meanwhile the tenants of this vineyard are so greedy that they don’t want to have to give the owner the produce of his own land. They seriously hurt or kill two sets of slaves sent to collect the rightful proceeds—and when the owner sends his own son, thinking that he will be respected, they kill him as well.
And what immediately came to my mind were the familiar *words of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz when she is melting into nothingness, “What a world, what a world!”
A part of me can only sigh and agree. It does feel like *Jesus has hit the nail on the head. It feels like we are living in a world that often has the worst people in charge, and when those who are rational, or moral, or concerned with true justice try to right wrongs, or demand answers, they get shot down, literally as well as figuratively. As one young person said to me recently, “Why get so worked up about everything? We can’t do anything about it. It’s not going to change.”
*That comment has stuck with me—because I don’t want to believe it is the truth. Jesus’ parable might paint a grim picture, but he doesn’t stop there. The parable is just an entrance to talk about the state of things. Jesus elicits “the correct answer” from the religious leaders he is talking to—when he asks “What do you think will happen when the owner comes?” The answer isn’t we can’t do anything about it. The answer is the owner will deal with those who are gaming the system, and ask those who aren’t to take on more responsibility.
*I guess this parable asks us, “Who is really in charge here?” Now there are some in our world who think the answer would be whoever occupies the land; or whoever has the most power, the most guns, the most followers. Jesus looks us in the eye and asks, “Who do you think is finally in charge? Who will have the final say?” And that, for religious people, should evoke a different answer—not whoever is leading in the polls, not whoever can scream the loudest, not anyone but God.
*In this analogous reading—God is the owner, the vineyard is our world, and we are the tenants, either at the beginning or at the end. Are we going to act like the tenants, disregarding who truly owns the vineyard and taking all the profits for ourselves? Or are we going to live knowing who owns the vineyard and what our place is in this world?
*But acknowledging whose world this is, and knowing how to act in the in between are two very different things. My young friend’s disillusionment “What can we do? It’s all been done before, and look where that got us!” has a painful truth to it. There have been so many sets of faithful servants of the Master who have gone to the wicked tenants and tried to fix things. And have often paid a terrible price.
*Those that occupy the vineyard aren’t interested in ceding their power. Do we have to just shake our heads and pray mightily that the owner will come back soon? That doesn’t seem right either. Jesus talks about the owner looking for those who have “produced fruits of the kingdom”—they are the ones who will be elevated in the end.
But that is a lot easier said than done. It is hard to have to continue doing something that doesn’t seem to get you much. It is depressing and downright numbing. And that is where the beauty of the parables of Jesus lie. Because they were spoken to a community—they weren’t private stories for private lives. *This Jesus in Matthew is taking on the religious authorities and their laws that diminish people, the oppressive state that occupied the land Jesus lived in, and the power that we give to those who make us feel less than beloved children of God. In other words, Jesus intended for his followers to be faithful servants, and that includes going into that “world” where others claim to define what is going to happen.
*And as I thought about the world that we live in, in 2020, a world I find often depressing and stressful and incomprehensible, I realized that this parable was just what I needed to hear. Yes, we live in a world, right now, that seems like the vineyard of the parable. But we can’t give up. Yes, we might be walking into a hostile arena if we live our faithfulness out loud. But we are called to do it anyway.
*To help us get through—Jesus reminds us that there really is an owner, even if that owner seems absent at times. And I think Jesus intends for us to remember that we don’t have to wrestle with the wicked tenants all alone. That is what being part of the body of Christ is about. We are a community. Where two or three are gathered. And on this World Communion Sunday, we are nudged to hold onto the wideness of Jesus’ followers—of whom we are only a tiny part.
As I thought about this parable, and the feelings that I deeply understood spoken aloud by a young person, I was given *a gift. One of the clergy of Newark Presbytery shared that she had heard a sermon that had played the song “Press” by Maranda Curtis (and Dana Sorey) and offered it to us as a wonderful statement of faith.
*I’m not going to try to play it for you, but I encourage you to go to Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4q-foYz0Ek4 ) and have the whole experience. For as Maranda Curtis sings these words, images of the myriad of people at black lives matter marches cycle through the background.
*“Troubled on every side
Sometimes I don’t wanna try
Try to move on when it seems there’s nothing left
Lord I need You to step in
Give me a second wind
Lord with Your help
I know that I will win
*I will press
Even when I am distressed
I will press
Even when life is a mess,
But when it hurts
I know You’re moving on my behalf
I will press
I will press…”
*I’m taking this as my own anthem for this time. I cling to the belief that God will come home to make things right. And I pledge that in the meantime, I will be faithful, I will press, even when I am distress, I will press, even when life is a mess. And I know I am not alone—even in this time when we are socially *distanced by Covid. Together, we will find a way. Together, we can forge new paths. Together, we must do the hard work of planting and building and tending and harvesting, until the Lord comes again. Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus). Amen.