Binging and Stumbling

Message Manuscript for Matthew 21:33-46
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, October 4, 2020

How many of you consider yourselves binge watchers? Apparently, the number of people who binge watch on Netflix, YouTube, or other places has increased during the pandemic. It has been a form of escapism, allowing us to not only distance ourselves from one another but from the horrific reality of 2020. The stories provide us with a level of comfort but also may help us make some sense of our world.

Jesus knew the power of stories. Our gospel readings of late have given us a binge-like experience with some of his parables. The one we just heard is one in a continuing dialogue Jesus has with religious leaders about his authority. This one continues with the vineyard theme. As we heard in our reading this morning from Isaiah 5, the vineyard theme is a familiar image for Israel, of what was expected of them as they were workers for God in this world; of what would happen to them if they produced bloodshed rather than justice. When Jesus mentioned it, his crowd knew he was talking about them, of Israel and their faith in God, not about Jew vs. Gentile. In this parable, a landowner plants a vineyard, leases it out to tenants, and goes out of town. When harvest time comes, he sends his workers to collect the produce. The tenants beat them up and kill one. The landowner then sends more of his workers and the same thing happens to them. Finally, the landowner sends his son, thinking the tenants will respect him and allow him to collect the produce. Jesus ends the story by telling how the tenants seized the son and killed him. He then asks the religious leaders what they think the landowner should do the tenants. They give the obvious answer that we would probably give as well, that he should put them to a miserable death for what they have done.

Jesus replies to their answer by quoting from Psalm 118 about a cornerstone. In case they weren’t getting the point, he clarifies it for them emphasizing that they are not working for the kingdom of heaven but stumbling over what God was doing in the world. They were hoarding what belongs to God, making a kingdom of their own, serving kingdoms of the world, oppressing the poor, and neglecting the sick among them. God’s way for them in the world is one of love and good works, not selfishness and violence. This is the message the prophets have been trying to get to them. It is the one he was delivering to them with his words and actions. But they were stumbling over the one who has come to lead them in the way of love and good works, the way of the kingdom of heaven.

The themes Jesus presented in this parable sound familiar to us right now, don’t they? Kingdoms, greed, power, conspiracies, bullying, theft, violence, and murder. We know these themes quite well. And we know about different kingdoms in our world and how they exist and continue based on evil, power, and brutality. We’ve all seen just how destructive power can be in recent years, months, and days here in our nation as people in power have used deception to do wrong and then cover it up. Sometimes people in power do it blatantly. In case we think this is just with government or businesses, we must also see that religious powers do this as well, especially when they seek power from the kingdoms of this world.

But we also know about another kingdom and another theme. The other theme here is one mentioned by Jesus, about a son who is sent into violence and who dies without committing violence. This is the role Jesus is filling with his life. Like Matthew’s readers, we can look back and see it even more clearly in how and why Jesus was sent from God into this world. As we look at him, we see that he is the cornerstone, one people have stumbled on and over since he arrived in this world. Could it be that we continue to stumble over Jesus? We do so when we remove the barrier between church and state, invest more in our institutions than in the impoverished and sick, resort to violence rather than peaceful resistance, seek recognition over humility, condemn rather than uplift, exclude rather than include, infect rather than heal, afflict rather than comfort, and take rather than give. In other words, do we look more like the tenants in this story than the son?

The kind of tenants we are to be in the vineyard of God, the kingdom of heaven, are those who are busy doing the work God has given us to do rather than acting like we own the place and don’t have to be accountable for anything. What we must learn from Jesus is that we are here for God, to take what God produces and share it with the world around us. We are to be about love and good works, not self-centeredness and violence. Our true power is self-sacrifice and love. We are to learn from the son in this parable, imitating him by giving ourselves for others in love and peace rather than giving/doing violence. This is needed now more than ever before in our lives as our nation is in chaos and on the precipice of violence as we near the election with a President who won’t guarantee a peaceful transfer of power, with militias standing by, with pronounced divisions in our nation and in our personal relationships, and with other nations ready to take advantage of our vulnerability.

So, what shall we do? It turns out we have a choice. Just as Jesus had his audience interact with the story and choose an ending, so we get to do the same. Will we choose the obvious way of the world, which only creates more problems or will we choose the way of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven?

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