Sermon; 18 Pentecost/Proper 22A; Matthew 21:33-46
Once again we are confronted with angry passages about the failure of Israel to hold up their end of the covenant with God. Or maybe it's about their desire to control what God has given them for selfish purposes and gain. The problem, though, is that the parables we have been hearing recently with the theme of replacements eventually gave rise to something called supersessionism; a theology stating that Christianity is the full and complete revelation of God that replaces and eliminates Judaism. As you might expect, this can have catastrophic consequences for Jewish people.
Using this theology it is easy for us to say that we are the new chosen people. It is easy for us to say that we are better or more special than others. And when we begin thinking that way it's not beyond imagination that we become overly possessive of what we feel is rightly ours, even to the point of resorting to violence in order to keep it. But again, using this parable as a story about Jews losing favor with God and being replaced by Christians is a convenient way for us to dodge our responsibilities as Christians. In other words, we cannot look at biblical texts meant for a specific audience and think we are off the hook.
This parable was not only directed at the religious leaders of Jesus' day, but it is directed at all people down through the ages who put their own self-interests above the mission of God. And with that in mind, I think the key line in this passage is this: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces fruits of the kingdom.”
Jesus talks several times about producing good fruit. Obviously in this parable, but also in the parable of the sower and a few others where he says that bad trees don't produce good fruit, and vice-versa. But even though he talks about his followers or the children of the kingdom producing good fruit, he never actually says what good fruit is – only that we will know it when we see it.
For guidelines on what good fruit is, we need to look elsewhere, and there's probably no better place to look than in Paul's letter to the Galatians. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits of the kingdom. These are the behaviors that come about when we love God, love our neighbor, and have a kingdom mindset.
Paul sets those traits over and above bad fruit: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Whereas the behaviors above, those kingdom behaviors, or the fruit of the Spirit, are outwardly directed, these behaviors, what Paul calls the works of the flesh, are inwardly directed. They are all about us. And this is where we get into trouble. This is where we run the risk of being removed from the kingdom and having it given to others who will produce good fruit.
There are a few things on that bad fruit list I want to address.
Idolatry: There are lots of ways to define idolatry, but basically it is the worship of a thing over and above that which it represents. Worshiping the Bible over and above God. Worshiping the flag over and above the best ideals of the country. Some people view icons this way, as a worshiping of a picture or statue over and above God. We need to ask ourselves what we are worshiping and if we are more attached to the thing or to what is behind the thing.
Envy and Anger: These two things often, not always, but often, go hand in hand. We become envious of what someone else has, or for what we don't have, or for a perceived entitlement that we think is undeserved, and that enviousness can lead to anger. That anger can take many forms. Maybe it's anger at having to treat people equally. Maybe it's anger at not being able to spout racist or misogynistic views in public. Envy and anger can be very deep-seated and, if left unchecked, can explode in hateful and deadly acts – like deciding to shoot people in a movie theater, elementary school, or outdoor concert.
The people in the vineyard were put there to care for it and see that it produced good fruit. Instead, they idolized their position to a point where they forgot who was the source of that vineyard. And then they became envious and angry to the point of abusing and killing those representing the landowner – God.
It's easy to allow the works of the flesh to gain control because it's easy to care only about ourselves. It's easy to focus on me, myself, and I without regard to others. But we are not called to follow an easy path. We are called to do the hard work of producing good fruit. We are called to express love, patience, generosity, and self-control.
It has been my experience that, for the most part, we here are producing good fruit. However, because we are imperfect humans, we also occasionally fall into the trap of being inwardly focused. But I also think that we are self-aware enough to know when we fall into that trap and are self-assured enough to say, “I think we missed here.”
Let us continue to look beyond ourselves. Let us continue to produce good fruit. Let us continue to use these parables not as proof of our goodness, but as a warning to stay focused on the mission of God over and above the catering to our own selfish desires.