The Vocation of the Vineyard

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80:7-15

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

Crying to God for justice in a world of violence.

Recognizing inherited privilege.

Hoping for a future of reconciliation.

We are witnesses of the outcries against racially-charged violence and the reactions of white supremacy to those laments. We hear the longsuffering pleas of “How long?” in the midst of an ongoing pandemic (one that seems destined to get much worse before it gets better), and we sense the faint hope and longing for a future of reconciliation beyond these struggles. We know and experience what these opening lines describe. They are preoccupations that are very familiar to us, yet this description is not drawn from our current crises but from our appointed lectionary texts for this week, speaking to us in powerfully new and relevant ways.

More than almost any other Pauline text, the apostle most explicitly names his own heritage in Philippians. What may be the most surprising to the reader of Paul is that this is not simply a rhetorical posture. That is, he is not setting up his own life as a foil. He sincerely claims these aspects of his life as his “reason to be confident in the flesh” (3:4b). He names some things that he inherited or into which he was born (“a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin”). He also identifies honors that were conferred upon him or actions done to him (“circumcised on the eighth day”), and he claims accomplishments that were possible both because of his inheritance and because of his ambition and dedication (“a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee”).

It is tempting to read this as Paul’s résumé or his credentials, and it is often preached in this manner. That is partially true, but it might be more accurate to see Paul identifying and claiming his own privileged status. And he does not hold back, stating that he was zealous and blameless (3:6). Surprisingly, after this recognition, Paul says that he wants to set all of this aside. In words equally strong to the claim of that privilege, he calls it “rubbish,” a word that could easily be translated as dung (3:8).

Of course, the central image in these appointed lectionary texts is a vineyard. Each text speaks in a different manner about the vineyard. While this can be frustrating for some, it is likely helpful because it opens up numerous possibilities for the image in our own context. As a result, much has been written about these texts and this image, and we might even find new insights and challenges by encountering them this week.

The Old Testament readings point to a sense of loss. In their own way, each mourns the injustice present in the world. Isaiah 5 describes God’s expectation for justice, when only bloodshed is given (5:7). The psalmist cries for God’s help, restoration, and even salvation in this time of loss. According to the psalm, if any hope is to be found, it is in the possibility that God will “look down from heaven” and provide assistance (Psalm 80:14).

There are two observations about the gospel lesson that seem pertinent at this point. First, the tenants of the vineyard did not listen to the landowner’s slaves when they come to receive the harvest. Who are these servants of the landowner? Surely, the Old Testament prophets play this role, warning Israel’s leaders of their covenant unfaithfulness. But are there others? Especially in light of the resonance of these texts with our present moment, are there others that point to the unfulfilled expectations of the landowner, to the presence of injustice and violence in and around the vineyard? Are we listening to these voices and responding appropriately?

Second, emphasizing the need for fruitfulness, Jesus declares to the chief priests and the Pharisees: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). Almost all translations use the word “people,” even though the Greek is the same word for the Gentiles (lit., “the nations”). While Matthew’s gospel is not abandoning the Jewish people, we can see a subtle but significant incorporation of the Gentiles into the vineyard.

It is difficult to encounter these texts this week without seeing how the text is calling the people of God to a faithfulness that looks like a people existing across racial and ethnic boundaries, a people that pursues justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7; cf. Matthew 21:43). But best intentions will not move in this direction, for as Paul reveals, we must set aside any sense of privileged status in order to know the Christ who shares in the sufferings of the world (Philippians 3:10). Only then can we know “the power of his resurrection” and “attain the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

So where do we fail to be fruitful? Sometimes, present leaders, like the tenants, refuse to give the produce to the landowner; these situations require new leadership (Matthew 21:35, 41). At other times, the people – the vineyard – fails to produce good grapes, yielding wild grapes instead (Isaiah 5:2). The solution here is more drastic; the existence of vineyard itself must be challenged (Isaiah 5:5-6). These texts, then, provide the church not with a quaint pastoral image that escapes from the struggles of the world. Instead, it is a call to be the fruitful people of God. Ironically, for this vineyard (even as described with a wall, hedges, fences, and watchtower) to be fruitful, it must move beyond its boundaries.

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