17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 5, 2014
Some years ago, I spent some time talking to a young man who was getting ready to leave here. He had recently turned 18. Shortly before he left, he admitted that he didn’t think he was going to stay away from using. It was too much fun and it’s what all his friends did. There was no way he was going to miss out on that.
He made choices about what he thought had value in life. And those choices have shaped his life since he left here. He fathered a child with someone he had no real commitment to and who will have nothing to do with him now. He’s been imprisoned several times… is in prison now. He used to talk about how his son meant everything to him. But what does he mean to his son? He never gets to see his son. He isn’t and probably never will be an important part of his son’s life. Do you have any idea how important a good father is to a child… to a boy?
And now he’s angry that his life’s so messed up. Of course he blames others; but he made his choices about what was important in life… and he was wrong. What he thought had value and would bring him happiness has brought him isolation, trouble and pain. He’s imprisoned. He is filled with grief. He is a failure as a father. And he still doesn’t know anything about really living.
That’s a very sad story, wouldn’t you agree? Well… both the Old Testament lesson and our Gospel reading for today are also very sad stories.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells yet another parable about a vineyard. The parable starts out beautifully, full of hopeful expectation; but then things go terribly wrong, ending with the tragic killing of the vineyard owner’s innocent son.
In telling this parable, Jesus draws directly from today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah… another terribly sad passage.
The prophet Isaiah’s vineyard song is a stunning piece of work. It was probably first proclaimed at some kind of festive celebration. Isaiah announced a love song about a vineyard. This would have grabbed the attention of festival participants eager to hear a happy tale.
He began with a detailed description of the building of a vineyard: Great love and care went into this magnificent vineyard. And great expectation and excitement followed: “He (waited eagerly for) it to yield grapes.”
But then the prophet delivered a surprise. He didn’t tell about how love and hope were fulfilled, but how expectation turned to crushing disappointment when the vineyard “yielded wild grapes” instead. (The words in Hebrew mean, literally, “putrid berries.”)
As Isaiah’s song unfolds, it becomes clear that the vineyard is really the people of God and the master of the vineyard is God himself. The great tragedy is that the people of God have not become what they were meant to be. They have become oppressive, cold-hearted and corrupt.
In his song, Isaiah wonders… and he asks the listeners for help with the sad question: “What more could have been done?” The self-evident answer is… nothing. The master poured all his love into the vineyard; yet the result was disappointment.
At its most basic, Isaiah’s vineyard song is a parable about God’s intentions and God’s expectations. It makes us ask ourselves, “Why does God give all that he gives?” And, “What does he expect us to do with these gifts.”
Isaiah reveals the answer to the first question in the opening lines: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” This is a love-song. God aims to give to us… because he loves us.
God creates us and gives us life in order that we might know love. And because he loves us, he gives us gifts intended to enrich our lives, strengthen our hearts, shape our thoughts and actions, and lead us into a future of health and well-being. God gives us gifts because he loves us.
What does God expect us to do with these gifts? Isaiah comes with that answer as well. He says:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
God loves us… but not only us. We are one part of a broad and great love. God loves also our neighbor, our friends, our enemies… those who are strangers to us… people in distant lands that we don’t even know… future generations yet to be born. All the things he has made and will make, God loves.
In giving gifts to us, it is God’s expectation that – through us – these gifts will strengthen and bless all those around us… our family, our neighbors, our friends, our enemies… those who are strangers to us… people in distant lands that we don’t even know… future generations yet to be born. All the things he has made, God seeks to bless through the gifts he gives his people.
God’s giving to us, then, is not intended simply for us… to make us richer and more blessed. It is meant to transform us… the way we see, the way we think… the way we live, so that his giving continues through us to touch the lives of others.
In order for these blessings of life to take root in us, we must be able to recognize them for what they are. We need to be able to recognize what has value in life.
Pretty simple… but not easy. The heart of today’s Gospel lesson is the passage Jesus quotes from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” In other words, what the builders thought was worthless turned out to be the most important stone of all… the cornerstone… upon which everything else is built. Everything else that happens in today’s Gospel revolves around that statement.
The human dilemma is this: We don’t know what is valuable. That knowledge doesn’t come naturally to us; and so we live our lives rejecting things of great value, while we pursue things that are worthless.
But that brings us pain and misery… like the young man I mentioned who sits in prison. That’s not God’s will for his life… or yours… or mine. God’s will is that we receive his gifts into our lives, and through these gifts, his will is to heal us and nurture us. His will is to guide us and strengthen us.
He knows we don’t know value. So he shows us and teaches us. He gives us Christ and the Holy Spirit… Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. He gives us scripture and prayer.
He gives us one another and binds us together in a community of faith so that we can help each other find our way to things of great value. He wants us to have his true treasures.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah announced that he was going to sing a love song. And though it turned out to be something other than what his listeners expected, it is important to remember that it was… and still is… a love song.
The love that created the vineyard did not die with the vineyard. Out of the ruin and pain of today’s lessons, new hope arises. God’s love will again breathe life into his people. After three days in the tomb, Jesus rose from the dead, bringing forth life and salvation to all the world. God’s love, not the failure of his people, will always have the final word.
May the love of the master of the vineyard take root in all of us. May the gifts he’s given us grow into good fruit, and may we become good and faithful keepers of the vineyard and generous stewards of the blessings we’ve received. Amen.