Isaiah 5: 1-7, Psalm 80:7-14, Philippians 3: 14-21, Matthew 21:33-43
There is no pain more familiar to many of us than the pain of rejection. Rejection comes in many forms and it can come from various sources, friends, family, a lover or work place. Sometimes rejection comes from our friends. P.T. Barnum was famous for the phrase, "A sucker is born every minute..." He learned that lesson the hard way. He once invested all his money in a scheme to make a "magic preparation" that would grow hair on bald heads. His partner then spent all the money, fled to Europe, and left Barnum with nothing but the recipe! It hurts to be rejected and it shatters our dream.
In the Old Testament lesson from the book of Prophet Isaiah God Himself experiences such rejection. In this reading Prophet Isaiah describes the process of planting a vineyard. To have the best harvest of grapes, the owner of the vineyard pulls out all the stops. Notice what is done for the vineyard. A very fertile hill is chosen. It is cultivated. It is cleared of stones. Those of you who know farming can appreciate what it means that the vineyard was cleared of stones. The owner now goes to the nursery and looks for the best, choicest vines to plant. Every effort is made to make sure that the grapes are top quality. He builds a watch tower so all dangers can be detected ahead of time. There is protection from enemies. The owner does everything to make a good harvest possible.
Then the harvest season came and the owner came with great expectation of the fine harvest and was absolutely disgusted with the worst crop his vineyard had produced. He lamented, Ã¢â‚¬Å“What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Is. 5: 3-7).
Then in the Gospel of Matthew the owner (God) sent his messengers (Prophets) in the vineyard (to the people of Israel) and they are rejected and some killed. Then at the end owner sends his only Son (Jesus) and he is totally rejected by people in the vineyard and they decided to kill him to get rid of him permanently. And then we hear in the Gospel the vindication and judgment of God. Ã¢â‚¬Å“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. Ã¢â‚¬" Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdomÃ¢â‚¬Â (Matthew 21: 39, 43). We hear this parable as an allegory of the rejection of Jesus by the Jerusalem establishment, which results in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the transfer of the vineyard to other tenants (gentiles).
Such interpretation has unfortunately has fostered anti-Semitism throughout the ages. It is not the people of Israel who are rejected but the judgment is on the religious leaders. This parable in Matthew expresses what Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man has called Ã¢â‚¬Å“the divine pathos,Ã¢â‚¬Â which is the great paradox of biblical faithÃ¢â‚¬"a longing GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pursuit of humanity. Jesus, who later laments over Jerusalem (Mt. 2:37-39), brings to expression this shocking side of GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s love, a love that will ultimately spell his own death. When Christians speak of the love of God we preach about the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœdivine pathosÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Ã¢â‚¬Å“God so loved the World that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal lifeÃ¢â‚¬Â (Jn. 3:16). Then cross is not a weapon of judgment on the sins of humanity, but bearing compassion for the forgiveness of sins of the fallen humanity.
In the IsaiahÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reading the owner of the vineyard expected Ã¢â‚¬Ëœchoice vines,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ which is justice and righteousness. In the Matthew parable we have the same image of a vineyard. The owner is looking for a harvest, but instead, violence and bloodshed. The two stories are linked. Looking for the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœchoice vines, what God is looking for is justice and righteousness.
Righteousness and Justice are undoubtedly central to Jesus understanding to his mission in order to bring the Kingdom of God (basileia tou Theou) on earth. What it means in the practical sense is that Jesus mission is an all-out attack on evil. Evil takes many forms: pain, sickness, death, demon-possession, personal sin and immorality, the loveless self- righteousness of those who claim to know God, the maintaining of special class privileges, the brokenness of human relationship. When Jesus comes to proclaim the reign of God, he calls those who have been kept out of the vineyard, to those on the margins and to those who are on the periphery of the society. He gives them new message of hope that there is a possibility of new life on the basis of the reality of the love of God. These people can hold their heads high as children of God and citizens of GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Kingdom. Imagine what difference it shall make to society if there is within it a group of human beings, who, focusing their minds on the reality of GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reign and praying for its coming, advocate the cause of the poor, serve those on the periphery, raise up the oppressed and broken and above all Ã¢â‚¬Å“proclaim the year of the LordÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s favorÃ¢â‚¬Â.
After hurricane Katrina we have seen the ugly face of third world poverty in the most affluent nation in the world. Many of us have felt the shaming of Ã¢â‚¬Å“our great societyÃ¢â‚¬Â in America. It is a wake up call for the followers of Jesus Christ to speak for the poor of our nation and to work in solidarity with institutions like Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity and Place of Grace in our own community. Bishop Tutu reminds us in his book God has a Dream that God invites us to be his partners to work for a new kind of society where people are counted; where people matter more than things, more than possessions; where human life is not just respected but positively revered, where people will be secure and not suffer from the fear of hunger, from ignorance, from disease; where there will be more gentleness, more caring, more sharing, more compassion, more laughter; where there is peace and not war. That is the vineyard of fertile ground to produce the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœchoice vineÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ the fruit of justice and righteousness. It is God to whom we belong as Julian of Norwich said, God is the ground in which we all stand. It is His kingdom we proclaim and pray Ã¢â‚¬Å“Let Thy Kingdom Come.Ã¢â‚¬Â