See It Falling From Above
Year A, Proper 22, RCL, Track 2
Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Paul was an upstanding, righteous, and honorable man under Jewish law. He was likely seen this way by his peers. But no matter what he thought of himself and no matter how highly others thought of him, he says that because of Christ, this is meaningless or even detrimental. He regards his history and righteousness as a loss so that he can “gain Christ and be found in him.” He gave up everything, his social standing and his righteousness, real or perceived so that he can find righteousness through faith in Christ. He wants to know Christ to a depth in which he knows the “power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering.” Paul seems to say that the power of Christ's resurrection is linked to his suffering. For us to truly know our desire of one, we need to know the other.
Remember who Paul was. He was a Pharisee. Paul was cut from the same cloth as those who set traps attempting to trip up Jesus; the ones we know so well in these stories. He had zeal for the traditions of his fathers. Paul persecuted the Church; even partaking in the stoning of Stephen. Paul never knew Jesus in his physical form. His conversion happened after Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul is like us. He knows Christ only through the stories that have been told and through his personal encounters with the risen Lord. Paul didn’t have the Bible as we know it. The New Testament wasn’t written yet.
When the letter to the Philippians was written, Paul is in prison, isolated from the people he wants to be with. Yet Paul has great hope that he will one day be freed and reunited with the church once more. He also has great faith that even in his imprisonment he is spreading the Good News and that others will look to his life as a model for their own.
I find this message especially poignant. Most of us, to some degree, are feeling imprisoned or isolated. We are hopeful that we will get back together but even regathering won’t be the same as it used to be. We, like Paul, also know the role models who represent Godly behaviors that are not often found in our civic leaders. So we must look elsewhere. Paul finds his model in Christ and I think many of us do as well.
Today, Jesus gives us another challenging parable; illuminating for us how people react to the kingdom of God. Let’s take a look at the violence and the reaction of the people as portrayed in this story. We all know this parable in which tenant farmers beat and kill two groups of the land owner’s servants and eventually they do the same the land owner’s son. In this account, we observe the brutality that humans can inflict on one another. And we are all too aware of the violence we witness in our cities and nation.
After telling us about these ruthless people, Jesus turns to the crowd and asks, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The crowd replies, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
The crowd believes that the solution to violence is more violence. Interestingly, this parable is not some opaque or heavily disguised story. It uses common illustrations from the Old Testament in which the landowner is God, the vineyard is the whole of Israel, and the tenants are the Hebrew people. The people listening would know exactly who Jesus is talking about. And yet they still reply that they, the tenants, deserve retribution of the same measure that they inflicted on others.
Jesus doesn’t agree. This is not the way of the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ commentary, he doesn’t speak of God inflicting such violence on the people. He reminds us that God does amazing things in our lives. The very people that pass judgment on what is good or not will be overruled. What they reject will be elevated and revered by all.
Yes, the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom. But this will not be done violently. We, as individuals, decide if we will trip over this rejected stone, or remain stationary under this stone as we see it falling from above; much as Wiled E. Coyote does in the old cartoons. We have the same choice Paul had; to follow the way of others or the follow the ways of Christ.
Paul wasn’t perfect. Paul had a past that some would deem unforgivable. Even with his flaws, Paul was convicted by the Lord he knew in his heart and the Lord he witnessed in the people he served. Paul was so convicted that he was willing to follow Christ even into his suffering. Even without seeing or knowing Jesus before his crucifixion, Paul knew the living, breathing Christ; the very same Christ that is in our lives. And I wonder, if Paul was with us right now in our times of violence and hatred, if he would ask us, whose example are we following?
Artwork: Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-1902. Vineyards with Their Watch Towers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved October 2, 2020]. Original source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Vineyards_with_Their_Watch_Towers_-_James_Tissot.jpg.