Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Pr Smith
Msg for Oct 8, 2023, Matthew 21:33-46
Our Savior, Raleigh
The Gospel reading for today comes immediately after last week’s reading. So, the setting is Holy Week, just days before Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and crucified. He is teaching in the temple precincts and the conflict with the religious leaders, the chief priests, and leading Pharisees who do not recognize Jesus’ authority, is at an all-time high.
And, on one level, this story could be read as a story of disruption, of upending institutionalism, right? The religious leaders are the religious establishment and Jesus is anti-establishment. From what I understand this idea was revived in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s. If you remember the Jesus People from that time, that’s who I’m talking about. They were an outgrowth of Pentecostalism. They called Christians back to a more biblical picture of the faith. Counter-culturalism. Deeds not creeds. Communal living. And they were the source of contemporary Christian music. And well into the 1990s and early aughts, the established churches, even our own beloved Synod, were dealing with the ideas popularized by the Jesus Movement.
By the way, it is not a new thing to say that organized religion has its problems. Recently discovered Dead Sea Scroll fragments suggest that already before Jesus’ day, there was a critique of corrupt temple leadership using Isaiah 5, the very same text that Jesus seems to launch from when He tells His parable. But if this was Jesus’ main point that day in the temple precincts, that the institution of the temple needed shaking up or tearing down even, His parable would have been nothing new under the sun. And yes, I will freely admit that organized religion has its challenges, but in my experience it rarely has anything to do with the organizing and almost always to do with the organizers. And so, I always assure outsiders with a smile, we are not nearly as organized as they think.
No, the bigger issue that Jesus is addressing in this parable is that the religious leaders, the very people who know the Word of God revealed through Moses and the prophets, they have failed to prepare the people to receive the Messiah. Jesus speaks in the temple precincts as prophet, yes, but more than a prophet. He speaks as one who claims to be so close to God, He can speak from God’s own heart. Even though He’s just cleansed the temple, His Father’s house, He’s not merely speaking against a little corruption amongst the temple elites. He is speaking about how Israel has failed to be God’s agent for blessing the rest of the nations of the world, for preparing not just Israelite believers for the coming of God’s Messiah but for failing the whole world.
Jesus starts by reminding folks of the words of Isaiah that God Himself established a vineyard, a clear symbol of Israel. He holds nothing back in His plan. There’s a tower to protect it and a winepress on site. This vineyard is meant to grow grapes for wine. Wine in the Bible is almost always about people in community enjoying a gift lavished on them by God. Every gift of God can be abused but it doesn’t destroy its giftedness. Israel was mean to be a vineyard to the nations, the rest of the peoples of the world, a source of blessing and joy and an example of what it meant to live with the one true God in charge not just within their borders but throughout the whole world.
Go back to Genesis and read. When does God pick Abraham? Only after the fall of the tower of Babel and all the nations have abandoned God and gone off in every direction. God then picks Abraham. Not only will Abraham have descendants, but through Abraham and his descendant all the nations of the earth will be blessed. How? Abraham and his descendants will deal with people by doing righteousness and justice. (Gen 18:19) That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what we’d all like? Institutions that work like they’re supposed to? Government that actually governs rightly and fairly and preserves the common good? And so Jesus is preaching in the precincts of the temple that day not about the end of religious institutions but about Himself.
The answer has to be bigger because the problem is bigger. The problem is not just that religious leaders happen to be sinners. The problem is more like “What can God do now when He has already lavished a total work of grace on His people and yet they remain as if grace had never touched them?”
And this is the key to understanding and applying this in our lives today.
This is the right way to view the Lutheran reformation of the medieval church in the West. It’s not like there weren’t reformers before Luther. There were bunches of them. Luther’s genius was that he wasn’t just fixing a little here and a little there. The reformation he sparked was a rediscovery of the Gospel, the Good News that God had acted in Jesus to rescue the world from sin, and rescued sinners in the death and resurrection of Jesus, all completely by His lavish work of grace.
Dear Christian, I pray that you know God has already and continues to lavish His work of total grace on you. This congregation may not be perfect, but it is a place where that message is not lost under a heap of filthy rags or a message of “discipleship” that puts your relationship with God back on you and what you do.
Every week at evening prayer, we hear the words, “In many and various ways, God spoke to his people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.” If we keep that in mind, we’re never at risk of becoming like these selfish and unbelieving tenants in Jesus’ parable.
As God’s people, we have a duty to one another. We have a duty to always remember that Jesus is who He claims to be and He has done for us and for the world what the Scriptures say He has done. We insist on the traditions we have, human institutions yes, but we insist on them because they point us back to Jesus and never into ourselves and our own efforts. The natural progression of thinking that religion is a result our own efforts is seen on that day in Jerusalem. The very experts of the Scriptures could not see the Promised One of God, the Descendant of Abraham, standing before them. In His voice they could not hear the living voice of God. And they so they conspired to kill him.
Paul warns the church in Rome, that if God cut off unbelieving descendants of Abraham, He will have no problem cutting off others who don’t believe. We say together for many weeks after Pentecost, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” So, heed the apostle’s guidance to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
And remember every day how God has lavishly touched you with a total work of grace in Jesus. And in so doing, we become living stones built up into Christ who is our cornerstone. Let the world see it and hear it. For God has done it for you. Amen.