(A continuing commentary on last week’s Gospel in response to Jesus’ argument)
This is a story of a long-time resident in a European village. He was known to all as one who was always kind, was a favorite of the children, and would do anything for anyone in making himself available to any person’s need. On the day of his death plans were made for his burial. As it turns out, he did not share the same faith as most of the townspeople and therefore it was prohibited for him to be buried in the town cemetery. This was upsetting to many, but the religious authorities had to uphold the established rules.
So the interment occurred and the man was buried just outside the fence that marked the boundaries of the cemetery. A strange thing happened late that night, however. For when people awoke the next day, it was discovered that someone had gone to the cemetery and moved the fence to include the grave of the kind-hearted village man who had been buried the day before.
Enter, stage right, the chief priests and elders of last week and today’s Gospel, the religious and civil leaders of their day. They were so caught up in themselves and their own sense of righteousness, they could not imagine God’s great desire for all the inhabitants of the vineyard as Isaiah put it: to “sing for my beloved my love-song.”
Once again, the Gospel, as Jesus presents it to us, turns things upside down. You know: the exalted are humbled and the humble exalted; the last shall be first and the first last; the rich will be sent away empty and the poor will be given good things; the mighty are cast down and the lowly are lifted up. We don’t always do real well with that. We live in a culture that too often exalts the exalted and believes the first ought to be first and the last deserve to be so.
Do you see what is going on in this account in Matthew’s Gospel? As we saw last week, Jesus engages the chief priests and elders who are wondering where he gets his authority, all by the way so that they can discount anything he says. Then follows three parables – the one of the two sons last week and then today two more parables, those of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. Each of these three parables is a commentary on the dispute Jesus is having with the authorities and is addressed to them.
Amazingly, the chief priests and elders are pronounced guilty, for they have in the first parable today rejected the prophets, those whom God had chosen to be God’s truth-tellers. By throwing them out of the vineyard as the parable account goes, the religious and civil authorities have become the so-called wicked tenants of today’s second parable as their hearts have become closed to God’s call. That’s how people end up being buried outside the cemetery fence.
The beautiful, welcoming, extravagant love-song of God that is meant for everyone is what gets Jesus in trouble. He is always moving the fence so that everyone is included, especially the ones often not immediately obvious to us. It sets up the conflict between Jesus and the Jerusalem leaders, eventually leading to his excruciating death. The fear of the chief priest and elders, and sometimes ours, is that someone just might get something they don’t deserve. But let me remind you of our catechism’s definition of grace: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.”
Garrison Keillor has said, “Every family needs a sinner to save us from self-righteousness.” Yet the Gospel goes much deeper than that. What makes the Gospel and the account we have last week and today such a revolutionary word is the upside down message Jesus is telling us about God. It is this: God’s mercy, God’s loving kindness, is not dependent on human virtue at all. It is based solely on God’s generosity, a love that comes from God who desires that every person is, regardless of personal history, invited to enter the glorious freedom of the liberty of life in him. It is true for the tax collectors and sinners, it is true for the tenants of the vineyard, it is even true for the self-righteous as they are called to receive the grace offered. In other words, it is true for us.
The heart of the Gospel is the shocking paradox, yes shocking, that the last, the broken, the sinners, the least, unexpectedly enter the Kingdom first. It is a danger to think that we are self-sufficient because we are so good at pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, to live at the top of the moral pile in order to look down at those beneath, or live off of the energy of contempt for others in the game of self-righteous one-upmanship. Our Baptism and Confirmation into Christ calls us to name all of that as the trap and lie that it is. It destroys community.
Today’s Gospel is about knowing our need of God and the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” If we see ourselves as we really are – children of God who know brokenness and grace, honesty and deception, not all good, not all bad, we can admit that merit on our own is not enough. Yet we know with certainty that it is God who is enough for us all, for “Christ Jesus has made you his own.” All is gift. God sings the song of love for you.