Who are We to Sit Idly by

October 8, 2017

 

Year A, Proper 22, Track 1

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

 

Last week the some Jewish leaders questioned Jesus’ authority. It is in this same setting where we find Jesus today, telling them another parable just in case they don’t understand why they rank behind the prostitutes and tax collectors upon entering the kingdom of God.

 

Today’s parable is built on the foundation of an allegory from Isaiah1 in the Old Testament. In the original story, a landowner builds a vineyard with a watchtower, a fence, and a wine press. Just like today’s parable. We find that the landowner is upset that his land produces wild grapes, not good grapes. Even with proper care and experts overseeing the land, it produces wild grapes. In this allegory the Israelites, the people of God, are the vines. According to Isaiah, God is the landowner and he is disappointed that the Israelites are not producing good fruit. In general, the Hebrew people have often thought of this allegory as an explanation as to why they found themselves in Babylonian captivity.

 

Today we have the same basic vineyard but in this case, the vineyard is under the control of tenant farmers. The vines are producing well but it is the management that is bad. We find that the people of God are inherently good but it is the leaders, the chief priest and elders that Jesus is talking to, that are a mess. They are the ones who kill instead of submitting to God’s authority. It is at this point that Jesus changes the focus of this parable by quoting from Psalm 118.

 

The cornerstone spoken about is not a decorative stone which displays the date the building was erected and possibly has a time capsule in it. A cornerstone, in biblical times, was the foundational stone one which the rest of the building was set into alignment and built upon. And in this Psalm a stone, a lowly good-for-nothing stone, which was rejected by the experts, has become uplifted and exalted as the most important stone; the cornerstone.

 

We are not to dwell on the poor leadership because through Christ there is a new creation. The old regime which controlled knowledge and determined what was good has been removed from the land. The land has been given to the fruitful people regardless of heritage and background; the Gentiles and Jews alike. The landowner’s son has been killed, the tenant farms have been removed, and a new way has begun. We are the way. Each of us is now a shared tenant farmer of the vineyard. God is still the owner. God still expects us to provide a portion of the harvest to him. Anyone who has grown a crop knows that producing a harvest is not easy. And since you rightfully believe that God is your creator and sustainer, then you are to give back to God a portion of what you have only receive because of God. If we do not give back to God what is God’s then we know what happens; we will be removed from the land.

 

This parable naturally leads us into a conversation about giving and being generous to our creator and to the church. This is an important topic and we will be covering it soon. But right now I’d like to go back to the builders who rejected the stone. As Christians, we are the builders and Christ is our cornerstone. Through Christ, we are on a journey to bring our lives into alignment with Christ on a path of holiness.

 

We, as the builder, can accept or reject different things or ideas as being consistent with Christ’s teachings. We can accept tangible things such as the Bible or a ring that symbolizes our marriage. We can accept ideas such as the Trinity, sacraments, and generosity as being consistent with our faith. And there are things in the Ten Commandments that we are to accept, such as honoring your father and your mother and keeping the Sabbath day. There are also things that we are to reject; promiscuous relationships, taking advantage of others, and again from the Ten Commandments you shall not murder.

 

What becomes clear even in this short list is that we cannot legislate morality. To clarify what I mean by this is because something like stealing is against the law, the law does not stop it from happening. Much like in the era of prohibition, alcohol was still produced and consumed. What laws provide are the norms for behavior. If there were no laws against stealing my guess is that stealing would increase significantly and there would be some children who would be raised believing that there is nothing wrong with stealing. Logically, I think we would agree that the laws against stealing don’t completely stop theft from happening but they reduce it greatly.

 

Much in the same way, we have laws against murder along with others such as manslaughter. But the Commandment do not murder when properly translated is do not kill another human. It doesn’t split hairs about how the killing takes place, whether it is premeditated or not. The Bible, with very few exceptions, simply prohibits any individual from killing another person; killing is left to God and a governing body.

 

Recently we have witnessed loss and tragedy of so many from storms, flooding, and earthquakes. We have also witnessed the mass killing of 58 innocent lives and over 500 others who were injured. A little over a year ago I gave a homily which went into great detail about gun violence. At the time, Orlando was thought to be the greatest mass shooting in modern US history. This distinction has now been surpassed by Las Vegas.

 

Over the last year, there has been no legislation to minimize such event from happening again. Just the opposite, we have proposed legislation that will make silencers on guns available to the general public.2 Silencers make it much harder to determine where a gun is being fired. Another title of the same bill proposes to deregulate armor piercing bullets.3 Now, I would agree that no amount of regulation can bring the threat of mass shootings or other gun violence to zero. Yet it is likely that increasing regulation will reduce the threat. I wonder who thought that giving the ability to legally modify an assault rifle, so it will perform as a fully automatic machine gun, was a good idea. Who hunts with a fully automatic weapon?

 

My understanding from old time hunters is that hunting requires skill. Part of that skill is to place a single shot so that it will quickly kill the animal. A good hunter only needs one shot and if you can’t get it in one shot, you need to be patient and wait for a better opportunity. I don’t know if this is still thought to be the standard that hunters strive for. I would think likely not, since semiautomatic assault rifles are becoming a more popular hunting weapon.

What I find interesting is that James Holmes from Aurora, Colorado, Adam Lanza from Sandy Hook, Omar Mateen of Orlando, and Stephen Paddock of Las Vegas all purchased their weapons legally and they used an AR 15 style weapon in their arsenal. For the most part, they used the weapons in the way they were designed to be used; to kill other human beings. Assault rifles are designed for assaults. Not an assault of ducks, or deer. Not an assault of bears or other game. They are designed for an assault of men.

 

I will not say that you cannot use this style of weapon to hunt with, but is hunting the most appropriate use of such a weapon? And if these weapons were not available to the general public then there would have been fewer casualties in these mass shooting.

 

In Australia for example, after adopting stringent gun control measures in 1996 there has not been a single mass shooting. Their homicide rate has dropped by nearly 25% and their suicide rate had dropped by half.4 They still have guns. They still hunt; but certain types of weapons have been prohibited. What will happen if we deregulate gun silencers and armor piercing bullets? The majority of the purchasers will not do anything illicit with them. But should we allow all individuals the ability to kill people through bulletproof vests such as our police? Should we allow a shooter from a hotel room to shoot nearly silently? The main purpose of silencers and armor piercing ammunition are to kill humans more easily.

 

I mention these tragedies and proposed bills, because we often claim to be a Christian country and as such how do we follow Christ as a nation. How do we as a country offer a moral standard if we say everyone is entitled to have guns that shoot quietly and pierce the armor of those trying to protect us? Even if we take our great nation out of this conversation then how are we as individuals to act or react to the mass killing of human life? Obviously, we mourn the dead and we pray for all those involved. But doesn’t Christ want more from us? Christ wants us to reject specific things that cause us and our neighbors pain. He wants us to journey with him towards generosity, peace, and unity. Who are we to sit idly by as people get killed and injured on a daily basis? Can we honestly say there is nothing we can do and there is nothing wrong with our current regulations? Can we face our God who says “do not kill” and honestly admit that we are not culpable in the least?

 

Tragedy, especially tragedy caused by the hands of humans, makes Christ weep with us. With few exceptions in the Bible, God does not grant individuals permission for the mass destruction of human life.  The leaders asked Jesus “who gave you this authority;” The authority to help common people and to speak against the religious and political leaders who will not open themselves to see the problem. We know the answer. And it is through Christ that we are giving the same authority to speak up for what is right and to open the eyes of our leaders. And today I leave you with the two questions that Christ asks us in his parable. Christ asks, are we the good grapes or the wild grapes? Are we the tenants who kill or are we the tenants who submit to our Lord?

1) Isaiah 5:1-7

2) H.R. 3668 – SHARE Act “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act of 2017” Title XV “Hearing Protection Act,” https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3668/text?q={"search"%3A["hr3668"]}&r=1#toc-H151052FBF3DE4316BB25059F2D13F1BE

3) H.R. 3668 – SHARE Act “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act of 2017” Title XVI, “Lawful Purpose and Self-Defense Act,” https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3668/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22hr3668%22%5D%7D&r=1#toc-H3BB83C5C39AF48F08AF4946CC87D5366

4) http://www.factcheck.org/2017/10/gun-control-australia-updated/

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