Most of you do not know this, but our Music Director, Arthur Omura, and I often spend part of our meeting time together discussing theology. This is always interesting for me, because Arthur is a) not a Christian, b) of a different gender and race, and c) of a different generation than I am - so we share very few conventions about the way the world works. This is really good for me because it forces me to think things through and explain them in a way that doesn’t presume familiarity or agreement on his part – something I think we all need to be trying harder to do in our currently divided and chaotic world.
This may be particularly true for Christians in our country at this time, where, despite an ongoing rapid decline in the number of people who identify as “Christian,” there are clear divisions between various Christian denominations, to the point where it often appears that we worship different Gods. How terribly confusing it must be for nonbelievers to hear about the humble, sacrificial, loving, and inclusive Jesus and then to be bombarded with images of angry, aggressive people who claim to worship the same Christ calling for the exclusion and oppression of certain others. For Arthur, these discrepancies sometimes lead to questions when he is attempting to pick the music for our services – thus our theological conversations.
Sharing music with one another has been part of Christian tradition almost since its inception, and choosing music for liturgy is a theological task. The command to “sing praises to God” is an ancient one, as evidenced by today’s psalm which tells us that the very heavens declare the glory of God in sounds without words. That is why we try to choose music that reflects and comments on our scripture readings. Arthur has become very good at this, but a few weeks ago, when we first encountered today’s gospel from Matthew, he wondered how Jesus could be both a sacrificial victim and the rock upon which the world might be built – or destroyed.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenant (as it is called) is an allegory about God’s relationship with creation. People who heard it in Jesus’s time would have known the players – the landowner is God, Israel is the vineyard, the leaders of the people are the tenant farmers, the prophets are the representatives of God who convey God’s will, and Jesus is the son who is sent to collect God’s due – and is killed. The actions of each character have something to say about the nature of God’s relationship to humanity, and how our choices shape the world God has made.
The landowner represents a God who creates but does not control, a God who has given humanity free will. We are not to imagine God as the President and CEO of creation, hiring and firing us based on our job performance. God is a creator who has chosen to give management of his creation to itself. God gives the tenants everything they need to be fruitful and asks only that they share the fruits of their labors. The parable reminds us that we have been given the freedom to make choices: between gratitude and greed; compassion and cruelty; faith or fear. We cannot help what we are, but we can choose what to do.
That doesn’t mean that God isn’t present. This parable suggests that our God is neither what my sister calls “a puppeteer up in heaven pulling our strings” nor a disinterested feudal lord. Our God is instead a loving parent who provides her children with all they need, tells them the best way to use it, and then remains close by to offer a hand when they fail. This God – our God –wants us to succeed, to be forces for good, and to share her Holy Spirit with others. The history of humankind is the story of God creating humanity out of love and setting us free to learn and grow – only to watch as, over and over again as we reject God’s blessings, destroy God’s paradise, and ignore God’s efforts to set us on a good and fruitful path. Remember the story of the rich and poor men who die on the same day? The rich man, who was selfish and evil, is condemned, while the poor man who suffered on earth lives on in the beloved community of God. When the rich man recognizes his fate, he cries out to God, asking, “Why didn’t you tell me this was going to happen”? And God reminds him that he sent the prophets to warn the man and others like him, finally offering God’s own precious son to save them, only to be rejected once again. By refusing to follow God’s way, the man has condemned himself to live in the way he has chosen- forever.
The tenants in today’s parable make the same choice. They choose to ignore what they owe to the landowner, instead crediting themselves for their success. When the landowner seeks to remind them that they are in a relationship- that they have an agreement, a covenant, the tenants do not take the opportunity to repent. Instead they dig in, becoming progressively more violent in their efforts to assert that they can control their fate – that they deserve privileges they did not earn. Yet, even then the landowner does not give up. He is still willing to give anything he has to save them from their own ignorance and pride, so he sends them the most precious and powerful reminder of their relationship that he can – his beloved son. But the tenants, focused only on their desire and greed, kill the beloved son as well.
The traditional interpretation of this story is that it is a warning that if we persist in our wicked ways God will seek revenge on those who reject her -but I don’t think it’s that simple, because the parable does not say that God will crush humanity. It says that the people who choose to use the gift of creation to fulfill their own personal needs – who fall on the stone that is the foundation of life- will be broken. In other words, we condemn ourselves when we claim God’s creation as our own but refuse to honor the covenant of love which is meant to hold it together.
The goal that God has set for us is deceptively simple, but profoundly difficult for us to follow. Scripture spells it out in myriad ways, beginning with ten simple rules that can be summed up in one truth: love is God’s will for us. Scripture shows us the reality of this by telling the stories of people like Paul, who once believed that he was a privileged, educated, morally upright citizen who could earn his way to salvation, but learned to his intense despair that to depend on his own achievements was futile. This was a despicable man – a self-righteous, self-absorbed bigot who persecuted Jesus’s followers – and yet God saw fit to redeem this man by striking him down – and then healing him so that he might repent and become Christianity’s great evangelist. Paul found out-and we must remember- that it is by God’s mercy- and God’s mercy alone -that we can be saved from ourselves. And so, as hard as it is, we must seek to be merciful as God is merciful to us. This means we must try not to judge others – even when we are quite sure they deserve it. It means we must resist the desire to cling to what we have, thus depriving others of what they need. It means we must pray for the salvation of all of God’s creation – the evil and the good – lest we trip on our own sense of “rightness,” and lose the chance to build and grow on the foundation of love given to us by God and demonstrated by Jesus.
We are living in a time of deep darkness, a time that seems to be filled with wicked tenants willing to kill to grab and hold what is not theirs. We live in an hour in which it is easy to despair or, worse, to become like those tenants, holding fiercely to earthly prizes. But scripture tells us that God always offers us a path to fulfillment, a way to rebuild humanity into God’s beloved community. The way is not easy, but it is true. “When we turn to that stone that the builders rejected, it [may] break us down too – but only so that it can build us up again. The stone will take away our pride and prejudice, our sin and selfishness, our greed and guilt” -and when it does we will be a new people – a better people – a people worthy to care for God’s creation with love, justice, and peace. AMEN.
Richard E. Spalding, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 141.
Marvin A. McMickle, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.