Today’s first and gospel lessons have a great deal in common. The subject is vineyards. In our first lesson, Isaiah uses the image of a vineyard as a metaphor for the nation of Israel. He says it yielded wild grapes instead of good fruit. The nature of Isaiah’s lament is seen in verse 7: “The vineyard of the Lord…is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” [CEB]
The New Living Translation renders the last part of this verse as follows: “He expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence.” The nature of this oppression is spelled out in the verses that follow.
Isaiah’s main accusation is greed: lavish banquets, big houses, and lots of accumulated wealth with little regard for the poor and oppressed. Isaiah says this kind of living leads to destruction because it has very little to do with the way God works in our world.
Jeremiah echoes Isaiah’s accusation. Speaking on behalf of God, he says, “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my field; they have reduced my treasured field to a desolate wilderness. They have devastated her; desolate, she cries out to me in distress: ‘The whole land is desolate, and no one seems to care.’ [Jer 12:10-11, CEB]
The purpose of laments such as these is to force us to ask ourselves serious questions about the way we conduct “business as usual.” both as individuals and as a society. Are our values in line with God’s values? Do we care about the poor and oppressed or are we only concerned with our own personal and national prosperity?
All of the Old Testament prophets agree that we should never mistake prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing. Quite often prosperity is achieved at the expense of others. There is always a cost to it. It always affects someone else. Not surprisingly, God is not pleased with this kind of behavior.
Switching texts for a minute, let’s turn our attention to our gospel lesson. Matthew says it’s a parable, but it’s actually an allegory filled with lots of coded images that are fairly easy to decipher. The landowner is God. The vineyard is the nation of Israel. The tenants are the people of Israel. The slaves are the prophets. And the son is Jesus.
The basic point of the allegory is similar to Isaiah’s lament In our first lesson: Israel is greedy and is a terrible steward of the resources God has given them. God sent the prophets to warn them, regarding their bad behavior, but they did not listen. God sent Jesus to warn them, but they crucified them. The hope of the allegory is that the people hearing it will repent and turn back to God’s justice and righteousness. The way Matthew says they will accomplish this is by looking to Jesus who is supposed to be the cornerstone of their lives. If they do not change their ways, Matthew says that God will give the vineyard to someone else who will produce the fruits of the kingdom.
As I thought about both of these powerful texts this week, I could not help but think of the state our own city and nation are in. We’ve seen lots of wild grapes lately. This week Mission Hospital and Blue Cross failed to reach an agreement with one another. This has a created a health care crisis for many of us, especially those who do not have the extra funds to cover more unreimbursed medical expenses.
Lack of affordable housing and low wages in our area, has made living here quite difficult for many middle and lower income families.
On a national level, Republicans and Democrats on Capital Hill are incapable of having a civil conversation about anything. This is hurting our nations in ways too numerous to count. Hate speech and gun violence continues to erode our feelings of safety and security. Racism, homophobia, and misogyny are more visible than ever before. They threaten to erode all the hard work we’ve put into establishing equal rights for all.
I believe the vineyard that is our nation is in serious trouble. I suspect some of you share the same opinion. The question which remains is “How do we get out of this mess? How do we heal the violence and division we see happening all around us?” How do we yield the fruits of justice and righteousness instead of the wild grapes of greed and oppression?
Well, I don’t know how you are feeling these days, but I’m a bit overwhelmed. The mass murder of concert goers in Las Vegas this week. Three hurricanes in a row. Wildfires and earthquakes. Crazy presidential tweets in the middle of the night. You can fill in the rest of the blanks. It just never stops. It feels like there is hardly a second for us to catch our breaths. When I place on top of this the things that have happened in my family this year, it’s almost more than I can handle.
Friends in Christ, I know some of you are in the same boat as I am. The only advice I can give you is that when it feels like the wild grapes are taking over the vineyard, when life is just plain overwhelming, it’s helpful to narrow your focus.
Limit your time on Facebook. I learned a new trick this week where you can block all the posts from news sources that your friends share. You have to do it one by one but eventually all you see is what your friends write and not what they repost from other sources. ‘ll show you how to do it after church if you’re interested.
I’ve also given myself permission to carve out a little time to be silent, to get out in nature, to meditate and to pray.
As you begin to narrow your focus and do a little self-care, you’ll discover that you being to have a little more energy to give to the world around you. We might not be able to change the mess that is Congress or put an end to gun violence, but we can begin to plant new plants in the vineyard.
We can reach out to a friend who is hurting and having a difficult time. We can make a donation to organizations that are on the ground doing amazing work in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas. We can perform a random act of kindness for our elderly neighbor who has limited resources.
We can become a foster-parent to a dog or cat through Asheville Humane Society or Brother Wolf. We can educate ourselves regarding upcoming elections and vote for people whom we believe will fight for justice for all people. We can be kind to the hard working people that serve us at restaurants, check out our groceries, or deliver our mail.
When life gets overwhelming and it feels like the vineyard is only full of wild grapes, this is the way I have found to cope with the challenges life throws at us. It’s not a perfect plan. but it is one that works for me. Perhaps it will work for you as well.
Friends in Christ, I believe that our lives, as well as our nation, will be judged by the fruits of justice and righteousness we produce within our community, our nation and the world around us. There may be lots of wild grapes appearing all around us but I do believe with all my heart that the vineyard is salvageable. Change always begins with a small act of kindness, a creative vision, a fire burning inside. The time has come for us as people of faith to practice what we preach, to sow seeds of change, that will produce a harvest of kingdom fruits in our lives, in our community, in our nation, and in our world. Our very survival depends on it.
Therefore, let us commit ourselves to doing at least one thing this week that will be a visible sign of God’s Kingdom, right here, right now. Let us commit ourselves to the work of taking care of the “least of these,” the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the abused. We might only be able to pull it off one person at a time. But if you do it for one person, and I do it for one person, the vineyard will look more like the beautiful garden God intends it to be. Amen.
Copyright ©2017 David Eck