18th Sunday After Pentecost, October 4, 2020
– Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –
When reading the Bible, you will constantly come across stories of love and betrayal, be they stories of gifts that were given in love and wasted, or stories of love that one entrusted to another that the other betrayed. It is a constant theme including the stories of humanity’s creation and fall and the Prodigal Son, each culminating in a final scene of reconciliation or vengeance.
The two stories we hear today from the Prophet Isaiah and Matthew’s Gospel focus on vengeance, God’s vengeance against a rebellious people God loved. The vineyard in Isaiah’s story represents the people of Israel who God, the vine dresser, planted to yield luscious produce, but instead grew sour grapes. The laborers in the vineyard of Matthew’s parable were also the people of Israel employed by God to produce a rich and bountiful harvest, but instead rebelled killing the owner’s servants and even his son.
These are stories of divine love and human betrayal that encompass a cyclical pattern by which God is repeatedly discouraged by our inability to live up to divine standards of behavior. Yet knowing our fallibility, why does God persist?
I believe the answer is that what the Bible often refers to as God’s vengeance is actually the consequence of our bad behavior. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said. (Matthew 26:52) “The wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord,” said Paul (Romans 6:23).
Now, you should know that I’m suspicious of any parable in which God is compared to a slaveholder. Surely, one might easily interpret these vineyard parables as stories of an owner who neglected his vineyard, along with the workers who cared for it, producing grapes of wrath and a harvest of shame. We in Vermont need only look to the plight of migrant farm workers to realize how difficult it is to read these biblical stories and equate the landowner to God, especially in light of the God who, according to Mary, “brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)
God persists in reminding us that if we continue to neglect the vineyard, which today can be understood as the world in which we live; if we continue to pollute our air, water and soil, along with our human ties, with the toxicity of fear, ignorance and bigotry, we will render God’s world as a place no longer inhabitable for human life. We will produce sour grapes, and God’s vineyard will become our hell.
God does not create hell, we do. And the only way to avoid its judgment is to be ever vigilant and attentive to the social and ecological needs of God’s vineyard.
Our fallen condition as a human race is a product of inattentive and ignorant behavior, consuming more than we need and believing we have every right to do so. And the consequences are hell to pay.
God does not create hell, we do. And more than ever before we must heed the call to forgiveness and reconciliation from the God who planted the vineyard and recruited us to care for it. Amen.