The Gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 21:33-26.
Jesus has entered Jerusalem as the humble, Suffering Servant Messiah that he is. Some, who Jesus likens to infants and nursing babies, hail him rightly as the Son of David. But the elite religious teachers refuse to accept his authority.
Jesus then tells them a parable, which is his way of getting under and around the arrogant defenses of the religious leaders. The parable builds on the ancient idea that Israel is God’s precious vineyard. The parable adds the elements of God’s extreme care for the vineyard, but also the vicious treachery of the vineyard tenants who not only refuse to give up the vineyard’s produce, but go as far as beating the master’s slave agents, and finally the owners own beloved son.
When Jesus concludes that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce its fruits, the chief priests and Pharisees finally figure out he is talking about them.
One of the most difficult things for modern American Christians to understand is that Jesus is reaching out not to each of them as individuals, but to the plural—the community—the world. It’s about you, plural. It’s about us and we. The Lord’s Prayer is plural from beginning to end. It is addressed to Our Father. When we long for bread, it is for the whole world. There is no forgiveness of sins unless we build a network of grace that can cope with our sins.
The morality of the Bible is tilted strongly toward a corporate morality—a communitarian concern. The Ten Commandments is all about holding our society together. And when Paul scolds the Corinthians, it’s because of their arrogance over personal spiritual gifts that distorts Christian ethics. The supper they take is not the Lord’s Supper because they do not discern that the Body of Christ is the wholeness of the community of believers.
In this pandemic we are paying the price for our blindness to the plural in theology and morality. Those who refuse to curtail their business dealings, and refuse to wear masks, shout about this being a free country. They are free to do what they want with what is theirs. For them America is all about me and mine. They can go so far as to say that religious freedom is the individual freedom to do what they please, no matter what it does to the community. The word “socialism” is detestable to them because it puts the concerns of society above the concern for self.
So, when Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants, he is talking about us. He is saying that God gave his Son not because he loved “me” so much—it was because he so loved the world.
When we wake up and think beyond “my” individual freedom and rights, and look to the good of the community and of the world, we will discover the blessing of being part of the New Creation—the Kingdom that God is shaping in the body and blood of Christ.
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