Finding Us

The readings for this Sunday are challenging ones to hear. Isaiah 5:1-7. Matthew 21:33-46. Talk of vineyards to be sure, but more pertinently talk of failure and disappointment. Failure and disappointment on God’s part with the chosen people He called for himself. As good Christians (or perhaps just as Lutherans), our response is to read His Word and find ourselves in the stories. To apply what should be applied to our lives. To repent, watch, and be ready.

There’s a tendency to see these two stories, separated by some 700 years, as essentially the same, allowing the Old Testament reading to dictate our hearing of Jesus’ parable. Isaiah conveys God’s displeasure with his people who, instead of being a holy and obedient people are as savage and wild as those God hasn’t called into covenantal relationship with himself. He could have just skipped the whole process of tending to them and protecting them – the end result was no different. Not that God didn’t know this, of course, but rather that his people should be ashamed to presume upon the grace and protection of God as some sort of birthright when they clearly had no interest in being the sort of people He called them to be.

We can tell Jesus’ story is somewhat different. The problem isn’t the harvest – there’s definitely a harvest! – but rather the tenants, an element completely absent from the Isaiah text. So we understand Jesus not to be angry with God’s people in general or total, but more specifically with the leadership of God’s people, the chief priests and elders who should have been stewarding God’s people in preparation to receive the Messiah. Instead, they are rejecting the Messiah and in effect trying to keep the people for themselves. They wouldn’t see it this way, of course, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation, a situation Jesus speaks to bluntly in this story. It’s clear his hearers know who He has in his crosshairs, yet their response is not repentance but a continued insistence that this man must be done away with.

So we try to fit ourselves into this. It’s easier with the Isaiah text, because who among us would deny our fruit is somewhat sour, to say the least? Who among us can pretend our fruit is perfect and sweet and exactly what God should expect from us? We stand condemned in our sin.

And we know that this isn’t the point of Jesus’ story, we understand He’s targeting the leaders of God’s people, and so we presume we must hear it as a warning to the leaders of God’s people, the ordained or commissioned or Called workers as well as to the lay employees and volunteers. Anyone with authority over God’s people in any fashion. We aren’t sure what the warning is about, but we presume Jesus intends us to hear it as a warning and be on our guard against something.

But we have a hard time defining what that is. The Messiah has come. The Son of the Master of the House has arrived and we acclaim and proclaim him. We seek to follow him, imperfectly of course but yet faithfully. Our leaders should be careful of obstructing God’s people from God’s son, perhaps with sermons that focus not on the Son but rather on social justice or other issues we presume are highest on God’s list of priorities. But this is still a stretch, still awkward.

Is there another way to hear Jesus’ story of tenants and a land owner?

Perhaps if we allow Jesus to guide us, through his quoting of Psalm 118. Go ahead and follow the link to read the psalm BUT, as you do so, read it as though Jesus is speaking the words of the psalm. Not just the one verse He quotes directly, but the entire psalm. Read it as though Jesus is speaking Psalm 118 for the first time ever, composing it on the spot, as it were. And bear in mind the context. This is Holy Week. The Holy Week. The first Holy Week. Jesus rode into town on Palm Sunday a day or maybe two ago. He’s cleared the Temple courtyards of moneychangers and animal sellers. Now He’s being pressed to defend his actions. His adversaries are gnashing their teeth, chomping at the bit to get at him and get him out of the way. Tension mounts. In just a few days Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, executed, buried. And just three days after that, He will be alive again.

Read Psalm 118 in that context.

Pretty wild, eh? Eerie how well the entire psalm fits not only Jesus but Jesus at this particular moment in time, on the cusp of fulfilling the fullness of his Incarnate purpose.

And it transforms this from a text applying to you and me and church leadership throughout all time, into a declaration of victory against the group of men standing in front of him. Close enough for him to smell the sweat on their brows as they grit their teeth in the sunlight, aching to get rid of him and unable to do anything but pretend they’re listening just like everyone else. But they aren’t. This group of men with murder in their hearts, who refused to acknowledge John the Baptist and now refuse to acknowledge Jesus. This group of men in their fine robes and tefillin. With their tallits practically on permanent display, so convinced they’re right, so convinced they are doing the will of God in plotting murder.

We lose many interpretative options when we presume every single thing Jesus says is only for edification, only for justification and sanctification. Perhaps some of the things He says only He can say – perfectly, sinlessly, poignantly, stingingly. Perhaps sometimes all we can do is listen and give thanks to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world through his insistence on obedience to the will of God rather than his own. Through suffering and death and blood and burial, to resurrection and ascension and victory and honor.

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