Monday, September 29, 2014

Opening Ourselves to the Cost of the Kingdom. A Homily for Matthew 21:33-43

A Homily for October 5, 2014
The 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time,
Year A. Matthew 21:33-43
(revised from a homily 
first posted on 10.2.11)

This morning’s homily continues the theme sounded last week. It is a message that is part of what has been a consistent motif throughout this liturgical year, especially as we have been working through St. Matthew's Gospel: 
Jesus is seeking those who would follow him toward the Kingdom — the present and coming Kingdom of GOD —  and this following is shown in the fruit of how they live. 
I thought it might be helpful, therefore, before entering into the heart of the today's homily, for us to think-through the historical context of today's reading. 

First, notice the order: 
In a highly symbolic act, Jesus presents himself to the people as Messiah in his entry into Jerusalem, but notice not the type of Messiah the people expected, or even wanted. (Mt.21:1-11)

Again, in a highly provocative and symbolic act, Jesus cleanses the Temple. That is, he shuts down the work occurring there to show the purpose for which the temple existed had been usurped by the leaders and the people into something else, and to show that the purpose of Temple itself was being moved to the person of Messiah. (Mt.21:12-17)

The religious leaders confront Jesus, asking him by whose authority he was doing what he was doing, saying, “Who authorized you to do these things? (Mt.21:23)

Jesus said to them in reply, 
“I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Mt.21:24-27)
Which set up last week's parable about the Father who asked his two sons to go work for him in the vineyard concerning the obedient and the disobedient sons. (Mt. 21:28b-32)

All of which leads to today's Gospel reading, and it is as combative a parable as Jesus tells, ever. 

Again, I thought it might be helpful to outline up front just who the parable's characters represent, then to tell the parable, and finally to take what Jesus is pointedly saying to the religious and to see if there is an application to us in our day as well. 

In the parable, the cast of characters are these: 

The Vineyard Owner....................................GOD 

The Stewards................................................Religious leaders 

The Servants.................................................Hebrew prophets (perhaps in this context we could say even up to John the Baptist). 

The Vineyard owner's son.............................Messiah, Jesus 
(and his message of the Kingdom) 

The vineyard owner builds a vineyard and hires stewards to care for the vineyard. 

Harvest time comes, the time for the fruit to show, and the owner sends one servant after another to retrieve the fruit of the harvest. But the stewards refuse to give up the harvest, even to the point of injuring one of the servants and killing two others. 

The vineyard owner decides to send his own son, thinking these wicked stewards would surely respect his own son. But, no, the stewards, seeing the heir before them under their power, kill the son as well. 

What do you think the vineyard owner will do to the wicked stewards when he returns to his vineyard? 
"He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times." 
So, what do we see here? 

 Story of Israel
Well, first we see the story of Israel. GOD intended to reclaim his world which was lost to evil, and he was determined to do so through his chosen people.  They were to be the light of the world. But, sadly, instead of being the light they hid their light "under a bushel;" they hid the light of GOD's love for possession of only themselves. And, when they were confronted with this by the prophets, Jesus accuses them of proceeding to kill the messengers. 

Or, think of it in this way. Because of their suffering through exile, their way to be had become to express a GOD of power, a GOD of anger, a GOD whose power would one day be demonstrated through them, a GOD designed to match pagan empire with an eye for eye and tooth for tooth, a GOD who would destroy all whom they saw as enemies. 

GOD's Righteousness to his Covenant Promises
This is also the story of GOD's righteousness to his covenant promises. Far from rejecting his people, ultimately it was a man from the chosen people who fulfilled the calling to be priest for the world. 

Said differently, this parable displays GOD's persistent love for the world. Over and over he sends his messengers, calling the people to repentance and to fruitful lives for the sake of the world. And, sadly, over and over again the nation walks a different way. 

Finally, then, when it was clear that the nation would not or could not respond to life GOD's way, the Almighty sent the man Jesus, also from GOD's chosen people, to show the way of the light, fulfilling the covenant promise made to Abraham that all nations of the world would be blessed through his seed. Again, what the nation could not or would not do, Jesus did, keeping GOD'S covenant promises. 

He became the light for the chosen nation. He became the light of the for a lost world at war with itself!

Story of Evil and Death
But this is also the story of evil and death. Clearly, violence is part and parcel of the human condition, and Jesus knows that his symbolic action of cleansing the temple will be seen by the authorities as provocation and challenge. He knows that this will probably lead to his arrest and state execution, yet he willingly confronts the power of evil, strips away the facade where it hides and exposes it for what it is, a view of life based on raw, naked and dominant power over the other, over the weak. 

And, how does Jesus respond to this naked power of hate and violence? Does he call down 12 legions of angels to fight his war and accomplish his bidding? Does he come down from the cross to save himself in order to show them he is Messiah powerful? No. He simply practices the love he so often taught:
"Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing." (Lk.23:34)

Missing Your Moment
This is also the story of missing your moment. Today's text reads: 
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes?
Therefore, I say to you,the kingdom of God will be taken away from youand given to a people that will produce its fruit."
Stunningly, Jesus claims he is the cornerstone of the nation, or the foundation stone upon which the nation is founded, and which the builders are now rejecting. They, who had been looking for Messiah as the climax of history, missed him when he walked among them because he was not a Messiah of power. They missed their moment, or as St. Luke quotes Jesus saying: 
"You did not recognize the time of your visitation from GOD." (Lk.19:44

So What?
What is our takeaway, then? What does this say to the Christian believer living in the 21st century, living in the light of the end of Christendom? There is much here for us, but we have time to give focus only to two ideas: 

First, we must notice the fruit of the Kingdom is what concerns Jesus not all our religious talk

Here the text reads: 
Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit."
Like us, we who have been in church for a long time, these religious leaders knew all the words, kept all the feasts, but they did not bear kingdom fruit. They neither opened their hearts to embrace the sinner nor did they shine as lights for those who had lost their way. In fact, they chose the opposite. They chose against burden bearing, repentance and return. They chose against sacrificial love for the other and they were unwilling to bear the burden that came with reconciling forgiveness. 

May we not fall into the same trap. May we not live in presumptive grace. May we not believe that following Christ ends faith and our baptism. May we, daily, look in the mirror and ask ourselves the difficult questions: 
LORD, am I on the narrow way?LORD, am I bearing Kingdom fruit?LORD, am I leaving all for you?LORD, am I choosing the Kingdom way, the Jesus way, over the way of empire?

Second, we must be open to what GOD is doing now. We must be sensitive to the current leading of the Spirit of GOD as he breathes fresh wind into the old lungs of the church. 

Remember, the response of the religious leaders to Jesus’ offering himself as the Israel's foundation and cornerstone was to seek his arrest: 
"When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them.And although they were attempting to arrest him, they feared the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet." (Mt.21:45-46)
Presumably, these men could have accepted Jesus as Messiah, but their entrenched mindset and self-assurance did not give them room for the Kingdom present and coming. Said differently, the new wine could not be contained in the old world-view wineskins. 

This is a warning to us. 

It seems obvious that with the death of Christendom the old structures of doing church are crumbling and giving way to new applications of church. What that will be is yet to be seen, though I think even what is cutting edge church today will pass from our knowing, as we see the leadership of the Spirit move us to strangely new and different paths. 

We must not oppose this change; we must, even in our old, set-in-our-ways thought patterns, embrace the change, listening to the leadership of the living Spirit of the living Christ as he prepares the church to sacrificially offer herself again and again to this weary old world at war with itself.