proper 22

A writing for Modern Metanoia

MATTHEW 21:33-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘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.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

If I were to choose a bible study for my youth group, or choose a creative writing project, or meditate on a passage day and night as devotional prayer, I would not choose this passage. This is one of my least favorites and one of the more difficult of Jesus’ parables to understand. It feels hopeless. It feels like something we should leave to the people of its time. What could we possibly have in common with it today? It’s a passage we can easily leave to scholars to explain the role of the Pharisees, the Temple etiquette, Greek exegesis, historical landscape, etc. Though I am not a scholar in any of these areas, I still feel drawn to try to explain the background as though that would somehow help us understand it today. That is certainly a rabbit hole we could fall into as we research and try to find the right words, but don’t. Don’t let the confusing storytelling and colorful cast of characters drive you to the busy-ness of explanation and away from the more personal ways this story and scene can tug at our lives even today in 2017.
We can relate. While this parable may be one of the least accessible to us, relating to Jesus is probably more accessible here than anywhere else in the gospel. Jesus is pissed and he’s not taking it anymore. We don’t see pissed off Jesus very much, but here is, cursing fig trees, flipping tables, speaking truth to power.
Have you ever been so restless that even a bird chirping nearby annoys you? Or the struggling plant in your backyard catches your eye and after months of trying to give it life you’re finally done with it and you pull it up from the root to throw it in the trash (or compost bin)? Have you ever gone to church because you just needed some soul food and quiet prayer, only to be bombarded by sign up sheets and 20 minute sermon on “giving” and sound that’s up too loud and and and allllll of it? Have you ever watched the news to see yet another black teenager shot to death because of whatever excuse there was to shoot a child and people went on to argue about if it was legal or not but a child is laying there in the street and no one is talking about HOW WRONG IT IS THAT OUR CHILDREN ARE BEING SHOT TO DEATH BY THE PEOPLE SWORN TO PROTECT THEM? Have you ever stood at the steps of your city capital shouting, “Water is life!” to the beat of holy drums and wonder why protecting the world that literally gives us life is somehow counter cultural and in question at all?
It makes me want to scream. Just writing this has got me pissed off. Stuff just isn’t right. No wonder so many of us are easily stoked to anger these days. There’s a lot to get us riled up. Anger is not wrong or bad, but what happens when that anger is manipulated by those in power? What happens when angry people are given a message founded on empty promises and half truths?
A wise man[1] once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” How have those in power lived up to their responsibilities to their country, the world, and each other? How have we, individually and collectively, recognized our power and acted on our responsibilities? We see these questions answered in Jesus’ parable, the response to the parable, and the response to Jesus himself.
We are living in a time that Neil Howe and William Strauss[2] call a “Fourth Turning,” also known as a “crisis era.” This generational turn is made of four parts: the catalyst, regeneracy, climax, and resolution. While the life of Jesus happened in a different country and thousands of years before generational theory was even an idea, it is hard not to find resonance between the era that Jesus walked the earth and now. Rather than seeing this week’s gospel reading as hopeless, perhaps we can find hope in the midst of turmoil as Howe and Strauss have in the explanation below.
As America moves into a Fourth Turning, this will be a time of great national trial and upheaval. Yet seeing this on the horizon is not a prophesy of some horrible tragedy. A Fourth Turning also could be a time of triumph. Just as the risk of war is great in a Fourth Turning, so too is the possibility of accomplishing things that in other eras would be impossible—particularly in the areas of government, institutions, and infrastructure. It’s important to remember that Fourth Turnings have occurred many times before in American history. Each has been an era when America felt good about itself as a society and a nation, a time when big problems have been solved, when businesses ultimately emerged prosperous, and when people came together with a new ethic of community and consensus.[3]
Pissed off Jesus had a right to be pissed off, just as we do when we see what happens when power is abused and our world feels hopeless. Though we may be quick to condemn ourselves, as those did in response to Jesus’ parable, God’s plans do not end in condemnation. That is not the end of the story, just as pissed off Jesus or dying Jesus isn’t the end of the story. The real story, the whole story, is the turn to life and the Good News. Even times of upheaval and death can be transformed into times of life and prosperity. This transformative power is who God is and what God does. So keep on keeping on. Get angry, but let that anger energize you to stand with and for your neighbors, raise your voice for justice, and empower you to enact peace, even when it seems you are surrounded by violence. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
[1] Uncle Ben, a fictional comic book character appearing in Spider-Man
[2] Authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 pub. 1992 William Morrow Paperbacks

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