The Sweetest Hard Message
A sermon on Matthew 21: 33-46, and Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20.
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here; Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash.]
This week my son introduced me to a delightful new book: Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess. Macy is a girl who lost her hearing at the age of 4, and faces various social challenges, but she forms an unexpected friendship with her elderly neighbor, Iris.
Iris was named for the Greek goddess, Iris, who carried messages for the gods through rainbows. Macy’s Iris claims to carry messages from the gods too, although she does so in the form of enormous and delicious cookies (which, as a side note, is a truly delightful idea right? Who wouldn’t want a message that was communicated via snickerdoodle?)
Baked goods aside, however, I imagine that most of us have, at one time of another, longed for a direct message from God. Perhaps we have wanted God to offer guidance in a momentous decision, or to explain some tragedy that has devastated our life, or to just offer some reassurance that God really does have everything under control. If we could only hear from God – REALLY hear a clear message that removed all our doubts and showed us the truth… who wouldn’t want that, right?
It seems like such an obvious good to get a message from God… but our readings today challenge that assumption. As it happens, some of the people who have gotten these direct messages aren’t so thrilled about it! The people of the Exodus found the experience terrifying! The power of God’s presence on the mountain was too much for them. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses “and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19) They would rather hear from a mediator… someone they could ignore or attack – as their later actions proved – if they didn’t like the message, without fearing for their lives.
And then there are the religious leaders to whom Jesus tells the parable in today’s gospel reading.
There was a crowd made up of many different people gathered in the temple to hear Jesus teach, but Jesus was directing his lesson to the leaders. Matthew tells us that when they heard his parables “they realized that he was speaking about them.” (Matthew 21:45)
It could have been an experience to value – this widely recognized prophet of God offering a message specifically directed to them! But instead, they were infuriated. They wanted to arrest him, then and there, and were only prevented by their fear of the crowds. Of course, I can’t say that I would have reacted any differently. When I have longed for a message from God I have never imagined that message coming in the form of a pointed rebuke!
Moreover, hearing the parable in its own historical-political context doubles down on the insult!
The vineyard had long been a metaphor for God’s people, and when we hear a story of a vineyard with a landowner living in a foreign land, who seeks only to gather the fruits of the vineyard with no labor of his own, Jesus’ contemporaries would have made an easy association. The Jews were a subject people, who land was “owned” so to speak by Roman occupiers who exacted heavy taxes and responded to violent revolts with answering violence.
The parable of the vineyard is essentially the story of the Jews under the occupation and oppression of Rome. Except, Jesus casts the wrong characters as the villains! It’s supposed to be the foreign oppressor, the representatives of Empire who draw his judgment. But, instead, Jesus sides with the absentee owner and tells the leaders of the people that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matt. 21:43).
It’s shocking! And it’s confusing too. Why would Jesus associate God with an abusive empire? Especially considering that in the scene immediately before this, Jesus sided with John the Baptist, whom Richard Swanson describes as “a rabble-rouser who was executed by Empire.” It seems inconsistent. Pick a side, Jesus!
But maybe it’s not about “sides” for Jesus. Maybe it’s about God, and the message God wants to send to God’s people. Because God has a strong message.
In Jesus’ parable, the wrong-doers get confused about what belongs to them. They have been granted work, not ownership. But they decide that’s not enough. Moreover, they decide that they can justify any means – even violence and murder – to claim that to which they think they have a right. But in truth they don’t have the rights that they claim, and there is no justification for their actions. They are not the owners!
Jesus’s listeners can recognize this clearly when the story is just a story. They answer his question without hesitation when he asks what the owner will do: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Matthew 21:41). But these same leaders have a very different response when he turns the challenge back on them.
The SALT Commentary describes Jesus’ rhetorical technique in this scene as a “parabolic trap,” explaining: “This kind of ploy is designed to overcome our tendency to make excuses and exceptions for ourselves, even as we hold others to higher standards. We’re lured into judging someone else, only to discover — lo and behold! — that we ourselves are the ones we have judged. It’s a powerful form of accountability: being taken to task not by someone else’s sense of right and wrong, but by our own.”
In other words, Jesus is calling the people, calling us, to live according to what we already know is right and wrong. If a thing is wrong for others, then it is also wrong for us and for those with whom we align.
There are no ends that justify the means. We don’t get to write or re-write the rules in order to defend our own rights, because – really – we are always the tenants of a world that God owns. Our job is to produce the fruit of God’s kingdom.
It’s not a comfortable or consoling message. It’s not a message that could be sweetened by the right proportion of sugar to butter and flour and baked up in a cookie. But is it possible that this kind of message is actually the best kind of message that we could ask from God?
We long for messages from God because God is God and we are not. We DON’T have an infinite perspective. We don’t see as clearly as we want to. And because of that, we make mistakes. We listen to lies, or even delude ourselves. We claim rights that are for our own short-term benefit, but we compromise our morals in the process. The Ten Commandments God delivered to Moses are almost all commandments in the negative – instructions about what NOT to do, because God knows how easy it is for us imperfect people to do the wrong thing.
So, isn’t a message that stops us from doing harm exactly the kind of message that we should long for from God? Isn’t the sweetest teaching Jesus could give us a lesson that shows us the error of our ways, so that we can change?
After service today, our forum conversation will be looking at the nearly-50-year story of this congregation. We will be reviewing the various chapters of our life together to see if we can find the fingerprints of God in that story. These chapters include their fair share of challenges and pain, as well as evidence of God’s love and provision. And God has been present in all of it. In the joys and in the losses. In the growth, and in the conflict. Because the life of faith isn’t about doing everything perfectly… it’s about trusting that God’s messages are a gift, even when that message tells us we need to change.
Thanks be to God.
 Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007, p. 238.  https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/9/29/amazing-grace-salts-lectionary-commentary-eighteenth-week-after-pentecost