A Baptism of Caring for ALL
A Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46
I am going to go out on a limb and guess that the parable we read today, with all of its gratuitous violence, is probably NOT on anyone’s list of favorite Bible passages. It’s certainly not on mine.
In interpretive circles this discomfort factor is usually addressed by explaining that this is an allegory – in other words, the point of the parable is not to tell a realistic story, or to guide our actions; it is to teach theology.
The teaching is about how God sent Jesus to die for us, even when we were so clearly sinful and unworthy. It’s John 3:16 in parable form.
I have three problems with that reading:
First, the vineyard owner in the parable did NOT send his son to die.
What he actually says is “they will respect my son.” The owner is operating according to the rules of his honor and shame culture where those who have status can EXPECT respect.
He is not anticipating that his son will be killed, and is certainly not expecting that he will be killed for the sake of his murderers. The theology is fine, but the story doesn’t fit!
Second, the allegorical reading has too often been used to prop up antisemitism.
Unfortunately, some have used this parable to draw a distinction between the Jews (represented by the evil tenants – in their reading), and the church (represented by the hypothetical new tenants whom the people suggest the vineyard owner will install in the place of the evil tenants).
The interpretation claims that the Jews weren’t worthy to care for God’s “vineyard” - which is a metaphor for God's work in the world - so they were cast out and replaced by the church.
But in an era when antisemitism is getting renewed public airing, it is vitally important that faithful preachers utterly reject that reading. Let us not use the parables of Jesus as an excuse to HATE the neighbor Jesus calls us to love.
My final problem with this allegorical reading of the parable hit especially hard this week – because that reading has the effect of just shrugging off intolerable violence.
In a country that is reeling from the worst mass shooting in our nation’s modern history, I can’t read murder as a literary device. I can’t just move on past the slaughter of innocents, people who did NOTHING to bring about their own deaths and were powerless in the face of violence.
I read this story, and it pulls from my heart a cry – “Why, God?! Why do the innocent get killed? And, especially, why do some of your children get to the point where they can treat other human beings as though they were worthless? Why don’t we all recognize the value of EVERY human life?”
One of you asked, in your questions for God, “why don’t we all have patience and tolerance?”, and I think that is a related question. But at this point I would settle for an answer to why we actively hurt each other.
At first glance, this parable does not seem to offer any answers. It just describes the broken world we already know – a world where people get hurt because they are there, and other people don’t care about hurting them as long as they get what they want.
But as I studied and read, I realized this parable does say something about the conditions under which people hurt and kill each other – and that goes back to the point about what the landowner expected the tenants to do.
After they had beaten and killed the he had sent to collect his share of the produce, he said to himself “they will respect my son.”
We might read this and think this man is a horrible father – he KNOWS these tenants are violent murderers, and he SENDS HIS SON to deliver the message that has gotten his slaves beaten and killed? Who would do that?
But HE DOESN’T EXPECT THEM TO KILL HIS SON!
That’s not because he is an idiot; it’s because he reflects a specific cultural context – a context where NOT ALL LIVES are equally valued. – He did not think that the behavior directed towards his slaves – people he treated like tools, like sub-humans – would apply to his son. In his culture, the son of the landowner is due respect – he is supposed to be treated like his life matters, even when other lives don’t.
And that’s the key to violence, especially non-personal violence, isn’t it? It’s thinking that some group of other peoples’ lives don’t matter.
Researcher and author Brene Brown explores this link between violence and dehumanization in her new book Braving the Wilderness.
Dr. Brown cites research that shows we actually have a fundamental reticence about hurting other human beings. It’s against our basic moral code. In order to overwrite that code, we have to tell ourselves that the others aren’t really human.
Dr. Brown chronicles how that starts with dehumanizing language – language that she points out is all too familiar in our contemporary context. The book cites a long, uncomfortable list of examples of this kind of language from various voices in our national political dialogue, and she concludes in this way:
“When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens, we should immediately wonder, “Is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?” … There is a line. It’s etched from dignity. And raging, fearful people from the right and left are crossing it at unprecedented rates every single day. We must never tolerate dehumanization —the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.”
Dehumanization lies behind violence – both physical violence and the various forms of psychological, economic, and social violence that deny the value and legitimacy of our fellow human beings.
But dehumanization is the opposite of what we are called to by our baptismal identity.
This may not have sounded much like a baptism sermon so far, but the truth is that the brokenness of our world is directly addressed by baptism.
1. It is first addressed by giving us each an identity that affirms our infinite value. After her baptism this morning, I will mark Rosalie’s forehead with a cross, and call her a child of God – because that is who she is.
And for the rest of her life she can hold onto that baptismal identity, which can NEVER be washed off. The value of her life – and all our lives - has been affirmed by God, no matter what our broken world might say.
2. The brokenness of the world is also something to which baptism calls Rosalie – and all of us – to respond.
When Toni and Ryan promise to help Rosalie grow in the Christian life and faith, they are making that promise so that – as spelled out in the very humanizing language of the baptism rite –
“she may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”
To care for others – to give value to each and every life that God has made…
To work for justice and peace – to put effort into forming the world so that it works for everyone, not just for ourselves.
These commitments are integral to the baptismal promises. This is the new life into which we are baptized.
Which is why it makes sense to have a baptism on World Hunger Sunday – because none of our baptisms are just for us. They are for the world, as well. Our baptisms call us into a new life that is the polar opposite of the lives of the vineyard tenants in the parable.
Our baptisms call us into a life that is uncompromising about the value of every other human life as well.
The nearly 800 million people worldwide who suffer from hunger – their lives matter to us.
The one in six children in the US whose families struggle to afford food – their lives matter to us.
The scope of global and national hunger, as with the scope of global and national violence, can feel utterly overwhelming. We know we can’t pull 800 million people out of poverty by ourselves. We can’t even feed the 12 million hungry children here at home.
But our baptism does not call us to fix this broken world, it calls us to CARE, and to WORK.
To care about every single life, in defiance of the dehumanization that in running rampant on our airwaves and social media feeds.
And to work in whatever way we can to increase justice and peace for EVERYONE, not just our own group.
At the end of his parable, Jesus asks the crowd how the story would end, and they supply an answer steeped in the violence of the parable itself. “The owner will put those wretches to a miserable death.” But we have the chance to answer Jesus’s question differently, in our own lives:
When we recognize – either in ourselves or in our environments - a tendency toward dehumanizing others, we can recognize this as the first step toward violence, and we can reject it.
We can remember our baptismal identity, and we can remember our baptismal promises. And we can resolve to build our lives on Jesus as our cornerstone. Jesus: the one who calls us to love even our enemies.
The faith into which we are baptized tells us we are people who care and work for the good of all:
All the hungry, even those we will never see;
All the political opponents we want to hate;
We work for justice and peace in the world, and we refuse to dehumanize others, or to say that any lives can be thrown away. That kind of care and work is the fruit of God’s vineyard. And we are called to work in that vineyard.
Thanks be to God.
 Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, accessed on Oct. 6, 2017 from: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/55699050-braving-the-wilderness-the-quest-for-true-belonging-and-the-courage-to.
 Data from Bread for the World, accessed October 6, 2017: http://www.bread.org/2017-offering-letters.