Reading Ramblings – October 4, 2020

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 4, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Context: The vineyard. A beautiful and terrible image and metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testament, describing the relationship of God to his people, and more often than not how his people have not been who they were created and designed to be. They did not bring forth the fruit they should have. Not because they couldn’t, but because they wouldn’t. Failure is to be expected. Sin remains part and parcel of creation. But when sin becomes the rule rather than the exception, the goal rather than the missed efforts towards the goal of obedience, now the tragedy of the metaphor becomes clearer. We as God’s people today need to be mindful we are not exempt from the sins of our forefathers. The Word of God speaks to us as it has to others for thousands of years, and we would do well to heed the warnings, to give thanks for the grace of God as we continually uncover the sin at work in our lives and strive to work with the Holy Spirit to overcome it.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Talk of vineyards has a lot of cultural familiarity in Jesus’ day. Not only were vineyards a common feature of the land of Galilee and Judea, they were well-known Scriptural parlance. As Isaiah begins his song, his hearers likely thought they knew the way it would play out. But Isaiah’s words strike a very discordant note. God’s people are not the beautiful fruit of the vine, superior to all others because of God’s love and care. Rather God’s people are themselves a disappointment a failure, of no worth to the God who planted them! Jesus’ contemporaries knew Isaiah 5 as a judgment against their ancestors, a judgment that ultimately resulted in their being uprooted from the vineyard into exile. So powerful and pervasive was that historic lesson that Judaism could rightly be described as a reaction to the Babylonian Exile, an effort to ensure the lessons of God were never forgotten. But in the process, God’s grace and forgiveness were also easily set aside. Whenever our focus becomes ourselves rather than God, even if the goal is obedience to God, we are going to veer off into either a harsh legalism or a permissiveness that are equally dangerous to our identity as children of God saved by grace through faith rather than works so that no man may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). To save us, God is more than willing (and able) to uproot us, to prune us in ways that are unpleasant in the moment but aimed at our preservation and thriving for eternity.

Psalm 80:7-19 – The prayer and privilege of God’s people is always repentance. Recognizing our sin, we turn our eyes to our God who promises his forgiveness, and who has demonstrated his grace in countless ways large and small not simply through history but in our lives as well. We know and trust that grace is God’s default mode. The fact that God is the vineyard owner and planter in the Biblical metaphors means his default mode is love, to plant and tend and nourish. It is to these aspects of God we appeal when we are convicted of our sin, when we acknowledge our deserving of punishment and death. We appeal to his grace to replant us, restore us, and bring us to all we were intended to be, trusting in his forgiveness.

Phillippians 3:4b-14 – The tension of the Christian life is resting in the identity assured to us by God in our baptism, our identity as his children and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. This by his grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, not because our own efforts at righteousness are ever adequate. But at the same time we srive earnestly for obedience. Aware of who we are in Christ, and who we will be in eternity, we strive to make our lives here and now more consistent with that identity. We take sin seriously, not because God can’t or won’t forgive, but because sin has power to draw us away from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Sin distracts from who and what we are, and the mature in Christ realize this (to continue on to verse 15).

Matthew 21:33-46 – Jesus reapproaches the vineyard motif. His listeners likely presumed he would commend their obedience, the lessons they learned from the Babylonian exile. They likely presumed their obsession with obedience to the Law would exempt them from divine critique. How surprised they must have been to hear judgment! How surprised they must have been to be told they were ignoring the will of the vineyard owner still! That they were facing judgment just like their ancestors were! That they might once again lose the vineyard, and more perplexing, that it might be given to others!

Who else could possibly produce better fruits than the people God himself chose, planted, nurtured, cultivated? The thought must have sounded preposterous! And insulting. And Jesus’ educated listeners understood all too well who the parable was aimed at, and the implications Jesus intended them to take from it.

These parables retain power and pertinence to God’s people today, warning against our complacency that too easily presumes God’s will is our will, and that there is no discipline left for us. The Jewish people had the Word of God as well and still felt his judgment and pruning. If we presume the Gospel exempts us from similar pruning, we are likely dangerously mistaken, and potentially in for just as big a shock as God’s people 2000 years ago.

We turn repeatedly in repentance to the Lord of the vineyard. Not simply for sins long past that we hash over again and again, but in vigilance against sins of routine and tradition. Humanity has not changed so very much in 2000 years, and we are still prone to the same sorts of errors and laxness as those before us.

Lord preserve your church and people from anything or anyone that would cause us to look away from the owner of the Vineyard or his heir for our hope and comfort!

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