Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Another Way

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 8, 2017)
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Matthew 21:33-46 – “Another Way”

Our first reading is from the Book of Exodus:

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You must have no other gods before me.
Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.
Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.
Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks,
Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Do not kill.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking, the people shook with fear and stood at a distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.”

Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.”

Our second reading is from Matthew’s Gospel:

[Jesus said] “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

“Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

“But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?

Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.

One aspect of the Bible I’ve come to appreciate with each passing year is how honest it is. Life is messy and senselessly brutal sometimes. We may be in the mood for an encouraging Hallmark card this morning, but the Bible tells the truth about how life is!

Take Jesus’ parable here. You’d need to know who his audience is to get the full force of it. Jesus is in the middle of a series of three parables he’s telling withn earshot in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s getting into it with the chief priests and the Pharisees (again) and has the gall to warn them that God’s reign will be snatched from their grasp if they reject his message. The nerve! In that light, this parable is a critique of how power structures reject those messengers of God who tell the truth.

Over time, the church has interpreted this parable allegorically, with the landowner standing in for God, the servants standing in for Israel’s prophets, and the son standing in for Christ, or some variation on all those. People have done some awful things with this line of interpretation, mistakenly reading into the parable how First Century Jewish people “rejected” Jesus. A pretty big detail those interpreters often miss, however, is that Jesus is speaking directly to the religious authorities and not to the Jewish people in general.

As I said, the Bible doesn’t shy away from the raw realities of life. And as we read this parable this morning, this week, this year, I can’t help but reel from the bloodshed in it. What a violent text! You’ve got these wicked tenant farmers who beat up on some poor servants of the landowner. And the landowner, assuming as one rightly did back then that the family heir would garner more respect than the servants, sends the heir to the vineyard. But what do the tenants do? They kill him!

Trying to trip up the Pharisees, Jesus then asks them, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what do you think he’ll do to these tenant farmers?” They reply, “Well naturally he’ll totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to others.” The odd thing is that Jesus doesn’t actually say to them, “Yeah, you’re right, landowner is going to smite the wicked farmers.” The Pharisees assume that’s the way the king should respond, but Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap of their logic. The landowner sends servings and they are killed. The landowner sends more servants and they are killed too. The landowner sends his son and even he is killed. That’s how the myth of redemptive violence operates, you see: someone hits you, you hit back harder, and the cycle continues.

But that’s not the answer Jesus supplies. We know from the rest of his story that he keeps on resisting the temptation to fight fire with fire. The parable is left open ended in terms of whatever the landowner does next, but whatever is next the cycle is broken. The way that Jesus framed the parable is as a story of contrast between God’s reign and the ways of the world.

What an awful last few weeks it has been, as far as violent tragedies are concerned! Natural disasters, the Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar. What happened in Las Vegas alone is enough to make you sick to your stomach. I haven’t been doing this preaching “thing” long, but I’m getting very weary of trying to find something to say in the wake of each mass shooting. When is enough… well, enough? When will our leaders muster the political will to regulate technology that is a clear public health threat? When will we starting naming and addressing the subterranean forces that fuel violence like this, violence by people who entirely male and mostly white: fear, rage, isolation, hopelessness, and societal norms about masculinity?

I can’t shake the hunch that violence on this scale seems to be ever-increasing in frequency, almost to the point that we’re not even shocked when something like what happened in Vegas happens. We’re numbing to it, I’m afraid, which doesn’t bode well for our society. Like the chief priest and the Pharisees, we’ve come to expect it.

So that makes me wonder, where’s an alternative to such violence? Isn’t there another way?

In the face of so much that is awful, I keep coming back to that prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr and made popular by Twelve-Step communities. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” I have to remember what is and is not within my control. The awareness keeps coming to me that I have to… no, that we have to dedicate and rededicate ourselves to living as people of peace. That’s what’s mostly within our control– how we respond to the stress and calamity of this moment.

And it’s in that light that I see the Ten Commandments (from our first reading) as a summons to live differently as God’s people, to be that alternative. It might be easy to breeze past this list because we’re so familiar with it or because someone drilled it into us in catechism class or Sunday school, but the Ten Commandments were originally a gift of a liberating God to a liberated people. The Holy One was saying, in essence, “You’re free now, so this is how you are to live together as a community, to put loving me and loving your neighbor at the center. Remember to observe Sabbath. Don’t take what is not yours. Don’t murder. Don’t lie…”

There’s a lot of guidance for us in this Book about how to follow a different path, with the help and the grace of God’s Spirit. There are alternatives to the violent cycles of the world: forgiveness, compassion, telling the truth with integrity. They’re painfully slow and they take a lifetime to practice, but they’re the only way out.

One of the best descriptions of the Ten Commandments I’ve ever heard was this: “At the parting of the Red Sea, God took the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. At Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given), God took Egyptian slavery out of the Israelites.” [1]

That’s our call: to be God’s liberated people, a people who operate out of another way. It’s a call that sounds nearly impossible given the violent cycles in which the world is locked in these days, but the good news is that we’re never left alone. Thanks be to God!

[1] A version of this saying was attributed to professor Kathryn Schifferdecker of Luther Seminary by her colleagues on the Sermon Brainwave Podcast for October 8. 2017.

Featured image: Ten Commandments, illustrative wood relief carving, Vanderbilt Divinity Library.