In the Kingdom of Earth, selfishness rules and violence is justified. How far such things are from what Jesus offers: a kin-dom of heaven.
Proper 22A | Matthew 21:33-46
read, listen, or read while you listen!
Several years ago, Rose and I took a trip to northwestern Michigan. We stayed in a bed and breakfast near Traverse City and drove up the Leelenau Peninsula to go wine-tasting. While the region is known for their cherries, producing 74% of the country’s tart cherries, it also grows excellent grapes and has some amazing wines.
We drove up one side of the peninsula toward the tip, stopping at the small stands and store fronts. Some looked like country stores and others, like Leelanau Wine Cellers and Black Star Farms were big operations.
On the way back down, we stopped at three which were pretty close together. Ciccone Vineyard and Winery, owned by Madonna’s father was a simple sloped field with grapes growing. A small building stood to the side, holding a simple shop with wines and a few select pieces of Madonna-themed merchandise.
Our last two stops were at Willow Vineyard and Winery and Shady Lane Cellars. Both of these felt like the vineyards you expect to see in California or Italy. The great sloping fields with trellises of grapes hanging from them. The rustic character gives the sense, not of age, but of timeless presence in that spot.
And the blue franc at Shady Lane put me over the edge. That was the star I returned home with.
But this sense of the vineyard as a timeless, welcoming, hopeful place, where everyone can come and learn and taste and create a temporary community is the true beauty of the experience.
We also learned that a fight was happening on the peninsula between this vision of wineries as communities and another: one of shameless commerce and exploiting tourists.
A selfish community
The kind of vineyard Jesus describes in this morning’s parable doesn’t sound anything like those places of sharing and opportunity or even corporate expansion I experienced. Recall now your vision of a vineyard. Perhaps, like mine, it is a vision of sloping hills revealing delicate grapes dangling from fragile plants.
Maybe we’ve seen vineyards ourselves, or we recall their depictions in many of the masterworks of the last several hundred years. When we imagine vineyards, we draw on these paintings of Italy or France where hills roll and steps parade the vineyards to the fields. And we see houses among the fields and the pastoral landscape is coated with dappled sunlight.
Take that image and hear Jesus’s description:
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower.
This image doesn’t make me think of a vineyard, but a prison! With forced labor!
Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.
While tenants aren’t the same as slaves, our own fragile moral standing on that distinction belies any real difference. After the civil war, many tenant farmers were as good as slaves and as trapped in that life.
When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.
The whole setup for the story gives a sinister framework. While it would seem we should take the vile behavior of the tenants the same way the Pharisees do at the end: as a condemnation of their own behavior: it would also seem that we should be careful in praising this absent landowner. Because the whole things smells rotten and sour.
A different landowner
The gospel stories we’ve had the last two weeks might help us get at what’s so hinky about this story. Because these parables are part of a bigger story.
We’re in chapter 21 of the gospel we call Matthew. This chapter begins with Jesus’s Mock Triumphal Entry, riding in on a donkey as a humble mockery of Rome. Jesus drives the Temple’s commerce to a halt and then goes back there the next day to teach.
And what he teaches is about authority and action. He’s being confronted by the Temple’s leaders about all this stuff he’s doing. They’re scared of Rome and Jesus’s crowds. They’re trapped between the two, so they try to get Jesus to back down.
And Jesus responds with a teaching about action: in arguing that the good one is the one who does what God wants, rather than only saying what God wants to hear.
This leads right into the parable.
But if we jump back just one chapter, before they get to Jerusalem, when Jesus is talking to his followers, he tells a different parable about a different landowner. One who keeps hiring and hiring and hiring because there are so many people without work.
So now think about our two images of vineyards. And our two parables. And our two audiences.
Jesus gives his followers a picture of the kin-dom of heaven and he gives the Temple authorities a picture of the kingdom of earth.
Isn’t this fantastic? We’re offered these two landowners and these two vineyards. Two visions for creation. And in the one, we see a generous landowner who is fair, cares for everyone, and makes sure every person he or she meets will eat today.
And the other is absent, angry, and arrogant. He owns the lives of slaves and tenant alike, and yet demands respect when he shows little to them.
Even the juxtaposing of the workers is telling. One has day laborers who negotiate a fair wage before they set off to work. The other has tenants who act wickedly: beating and killing the slaves sent to collect the produce.
If we tug at these two images just a little more, we can see another telling wrinkle.
The energy of conflict in the parable of the generous landowner comes from the workers’ expectations. They expect that merit will lead to a bonus rather than such generosity ensuring all are fed. The landowner’s generous equality confuses them.
But the tension in this parable is built around the prison-like conditions and the wicked selfishness of the tenants. They believe they can claim the vineyard for themselves if they killed the owner’s son. Two defiant parties who think selfishness can save them!
We wouldn’t strain logic to see how the owner’s selfishness affects the tenants. Not only is the landowner’s absence felt, but these cruel conditions make the tenants feel like slaves. Even if they aren’t. He exploits them like they seek to exploit him.
This isn’t about God. This is about how things are! And could be. A kin-dom of heaven and a kingdom of earth.
Love in a time of hate.
It’s easy to see the kingdom of earth is around us. This kingdom’s hallmarks are selfishness and brutality. The kingdom of earth is violent, abusive, and obsessed with power. It seeks to dominate and control. It wants everything in order and without exception.
But most of all, it wants to exploit and steal. And the people of this kingdom want to possess more than their neighbors possess.
They want the biggest and best vineyard and winery. They’ll take shortcuts to cheapen their wine and maximize their profits. Hosts will hook their people into buying their wares as souvenirs and workers will be paid as cheaply as possible. Of course, letting the market drive down their wages.
Ultimately, these hallmarks reveal a culture of isolation and loneliness. This is what such selfishness does to us. We deprive our neighbors and ultimately ourselves.
And that doesn’t sound like God at all.
That is so unlike the God of generosity who ensures fairness, hospitality, and a truly generous heart.
In the aftermath of tragedy like last weekend’s massacre, the rigidity of our hearts and the fear we foster toward our neighbors intoxicates our souls. We start to think that murder for murderers is a good and just thing. Or that the tyranny of a dystopian dream is inevitable. We look at this world with the eyes of the tenant or the rigidity of their landowner.
That is, if we choose to accept the kingdom of earth.
But Jesus keeps prodding us to reexamine our reality. To peak behind the curtain to see the hollow man is no wizard at all. That he is not actually God. And this is not the picture of God’s kin-dom.
For that, we follow Jesus. He shows us the real god. We follow Jesus on the road which leads to God’s true kin-dom.
It’s a pathway free of fences save the ones holding grapes, ripe to bursting. And at the end of the path, is a small wooden building with an open door. He motions us to come in, enjoy, and make new friends of those visiting from all over the world. Here we learn, share our stories, and are welcome to stay as long as we like. But first, we’ll pass around the bread, perfectly paired with a table wine.