Weird Justice

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

I just want to get one thing out of the way before I write the rest of this meditation. I think it is imperative that we see ourselves as the tenants in the vineyard Jesus describes. It is clear at the end of the gospel that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and scribes of his day – the ones who saw themselves as righteous and holy. I think that we Christians in the 21st century are now often the ones who see ourselves as righteous and holy. We mostly presume we are good people trying to do the right thing – and that can get in the way of hearing Jesus’ message to us in today’s parable.

With that in mind, let us consider this vineyard that the landowner has created. It is a carefully-planted vineyard with a tower, wine presses, and a fence around it. The owner has done as much preparation as he could to dedicate this space.

Many of the readers of this blog will be reading the Ten Commandments passage from Exodus for today’s lectionary Old Testament reading – but stop for a minute and notice the Roman Catholic lectionary OT reading from Isaiah (5:1-7). Isaiah also gives us a vineyard with “choice vines” and a watchtower. The problem for Isaiah’s vineyard, though, is that the grapes have turned wild and have yielded bad wine. In Isaiah’s description, the people of God were the “planting” in the vineyard – it is they who have turned wild, no longer listening to God. God “expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Prior to this passage, Isaiah has exhorted the people to remember the poor and outcast (Isaiah 3:14), and to beat their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) so that they can walk in the light of the Lord.

Jesus’ vineyard is strikingly similar to Isaiah’s, except that in his telling, the problem is with the tenants, the ones who have taken possession of the land. In Isaiah, the people were represented by rather passive grapes; here they are represented by tenants who are expected to carry on the work of the vineyard. We might imagine that for these tenants, there’s an issue of fairness. They are the ones, after all, who have been working in the vineyard, making lots of money for the owner – and why shouldn’t that money come to them? Indeed, somehow they even think that by killing the landowner’s son, they can have his inheritance (!)

We can easily see the tenants’ point. It might well be a matter of fairness, and even justice and righteousness, that they should get some of the money and the land. The ones who do not have enough money to own the vineyard, but who instead are the workers and renters are the ones who ought to be given the vineyard.

This parable highlights how strong our own sense of justice and righteousness is, even and especially in the face of God’s sense of justice and righteousness. The world’s sense of right-ness makes all the rational sense in the world – and that’s exactly why it is so difficult to live counterculturally, to live God’s way and not our own. This parable is about helping us begin to recognize when and where our own senses of justice run up headlong against God’s – and to note how difficult that is.

To say, truly, “Thy will be done” – to give oneself over truly to God’s own justice and mercy – requires that we get rid of even our own individual senses of goodness and righteousness. We don’t live in a world that really believes swords can be beaten into plowshares; we live in a world that believes going off to fight in wars is a matter of justice. We don’t really live in a world that believes the poor will be lifted up and the rich sent away empty; we live in a world that believes that those with money are the ones who work hardest and deserve the most. Those things seem “right.”

Our difficult task, then, is to have faith enough to try living in God’s topsy-turvy Kingdom where all the apparent order and rightness of the world is turned upside-down. That means we will be uncomfortable. That means we will often feel weird and out of sync.

That’s why the Ten Commandments from today’s first reading are important to remember. These commandments established God’s very own people, who are very out of sync with their surrounding world. (Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy is just one of many out-of-sync ideas.) We who choose to love God and follow his commandments – we ought to stick together in our weirdness and help each other live this topsy-turvy life in the Kingdom.

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