Sunday, October 8, 2023

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“What Would You Do?”

Gospel Reading (Matthew 21:33-46, NRSVUE)

There’s this show that’s been on television for many years now called “What Would You Do?” For those of you who haven’t seen it, the premise is simple: actors engage in fictitious scenes of conflict or illegal activity — situations with ethical implications drawn from everyday life — in order to see how bystanders, who don’t realize that someone is watching them via hidden microphones and cameras, will choose to respond. More often than not, the right thing to do is pretty clear — well, at least to those of us watching from the comfort of home anyway.

As the show unfolds, experts watch and discuss the scene in question with the host from a distance, explaining and analyzing the bystanders’ reactions. And because these experiments tend to involve social prejudices in some way, shape or form, they can often be really uncomfortable to watch.

Now I’m no expert on anything, but the prospect of talking to you all about this interaction between Jesus and the religious authorities from Matthew’s Gospel makes me feel an awful lot like a commentator on the New Testament edition of “What Would You Do?”

As the story gets underway, Jesus is in the temple, where he’s been teaching and healing and spreading the gospel, and enduring interrogation by the chief priests and elders of the people regarding his authority to be there doing these things.

Jesus has just finished telling his questioners the parable we looked at last week: the one about a man with two sons, whom he calls upon to work in his vineyard. The first son says that he won’t go, but eventually does; the second says that he will go, but doesn’t. Jesus asks the priests and elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” and they rightly respond, “The first.”

Now, it’s obvious to everyone who hears this — including, but not limited to, the aforementioned priests and elders — that Jesus is comparing them to the second son, the one who, when it comes to doing the right thing, talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. And just in case this wasn’t clear, in the epilogue to the story, Jesus actually tells the priests and elders that the parable was meant to be a criticism of them. Of course, they wouldn’t have been too pleased by this.

But Jesus barely gives them a chance to catch their collective breath before he launches right into his next story — the one you heard today. “Listen to another parable,” he says — which sounds more like a command than it does an invitation. And let’s just say the chief priests and scribes aren’t exactly thrilled with this one either.

Here’s how it goes: A landowner plants a vineyard, fences it in, sets up equipment to make wine, and builds a watchtower in order to protect his investment. For reasons unknown, he leaves the country and leases the vineyard to some tenants. As part of this arrangement the landowner is entitled to a share of what the land produces.

When the landowner sends some of his slaves to collect what he is owed, the tenants seize them — beating one, killing another, and stoning yet another. The landowner then decides to send a bigger group of slaves to collect the debt that is due to him, and they end up meeting the same fate as the first group.

Finally, the landowner chooses to send his son to do his bidding, figuring that the violent tenants will actually treat him with respect. Instead the tenants kill the son in order to get his inheritance.

Jesus then abruptly ends the story; he turns to the religious authorities and poses to them a provocative question; he asks the priests and elders: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Like I said, it feels kind of like the first-century version of “What Would You Do?”

The priests and elders don’t skip a beat before giving Jesus their response: “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 harvest time.’” The religious authorities’ answer isn’t all that surprising; after all, as we’ll soon find out, they also have a knack for violent retribution. 

Jesus doesn’t ever actually say whether their was answer was right or wrong. He just quotes them part of the One-hundred-and-eighteenth Psalm: the one that talks about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone, and then goes on to tell the priests and elders that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them “and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”

This whole passage seems, at least on the surface, to be a pretty straightforward allegory — a story in which the characters and happenings are meant to symbolize real world figures and events. And the correspondences here between fiction and reality are reasonably obvious, so let’s recap them:

The landowner represents God;

the vineyard represents the land of Israel;

the slaves represent the long line of Old Testament prophets who, as God’s representatives, came to collect what was due and were punished;

the vicious tenants represent the religious establishment;

the son represents Jesus, who also came to collect what was due and was killed;

and the church represents the people who will be given the vineyard to tend.

But there’s a point in Matthew’s version of this story at which the meaning of one of these representations becomes a bit less clear.

When Jesus asks what the landowner will do to the tenants, Matthew has the answer to that question come from the mouths of the priests and elders. Mark and Luke, in contrast, place it upon Jesus’s lips.

Matthew, it should be noted, had no great love for the Jewish religious authorities of his time — the chief priests, scribes, elders and Pharisees who are depicted as opposing Jesus and his ministry at every turn. And so it’s not a shock that Matthew makes them look pretty awful.

But we can’t forget that Matthew’s very first audience consisted largely of Jewish followers of Jesus, who saw themselves as being engaged in struggle with these same religious authorities for the very soul of Judaism long after Jesus was gone.

And so it really isn’t all that surprising that Matthew doubles down on his contempt for these leaders by actually choosing to have them condemn themselves rather than having Jesus do it for them.

But maybe there’s a little more to it than that — maybe more than even Matthew, blinded by his own bias and contempt, could see at the time.

Jesus asks the priests and scribes, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And because the symbolism in this story isn’t really all that complicated; it’s obvious that Jesus is asking them what God will do to those who failed to properly tend to God’s kingdom, what God will do to those who rejected and killed the prophets, and who will soon reject and kill God’s only Son.

The reply that the authorities give to Jesus’s question says not only a lot about them, but also a lot about God: “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,” is what they say. But this vengeful answer, coming as it does from the mouths of the priests and scribes, and not Jesus, seems to invite yet another question: Is this actually how God would respond, or is this merely how they would respond?

In some sense, you can’t really blame the authorities for giving the answer that they do; vengeance and violence often seem to be, as we all well know, the way of the world. But the whole point here is that this is not the way of God’s realm.

God is, after all, the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” the God who came to live among us as one of us, to die as one of us, to rise again, transcending death for us. The slave, the son, even the tenants — God loves them all.

We know what the tenants in Jesus’s story — these religious authorities — are going to do next; they’re actually going to kill the Son — God’s Son — in the hopes of securing his inheritance. What they don’t realize is that they already have it, and that nothing — not even their own horrible actions — will result in it being taken away from them.

This is not to say that our actions don’t matter to God. It’s pretty clear throughout the Bible that our lack of faith in God’s promises, and what we do because of that lack of faith, sadden and trouble God immensely. But the fact of the matter is that God never gives up on us. Not ever.

And when we finally realize that God’s not going anywhere — when we finally get it through our hardened hearts and thickened skulls that God has already given us all that we need — maybe we’ll stop lying and cheating and stealing and killing one in order to get it;

maybe we’ll choose to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, just as God has always loved us, and just God has always called us to do.

We know what God would do.

The real question is what will we do?