Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 8, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2023
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I have to begin this morning with a disclaimer.  This sermon was mostly done before the events of yesterday morning.  So it is in no way a response to the horrible violence in Israel and Palestine.  We continue to pray for peace in the Middle East.

Now, before we do anything, we once again have to talk about the theological heresy of supersessionism.  I know, you were hoping I’d get right on that.  But first, let me just explain why we have to talk about supersessionism.  The readings today lead us to having to talk about it, yes.  But also, the ongoing and increasing anti-semitic attitudes in our country and around the world lead us to have to talk about it.  In a nutshell, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity replaces, or supersedes the Jewish faith . . . and, in extreme cases, replaces the Jewish people.  This is dangerous, and this is also heresy.  So, yeah, we have to talk about it.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the section we just heard has him bragging about how good he was at following the Jewish law.  “Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  And then he says, “I regard them as rubbish.”  And if we’re not careful, we might draw the conclusion that Paul is saying, my belief in Christ replaces—or supersedes—the faith I was once so diligent about.  But that is not what Paul is saying.  We don’t have time to break that down right now, but please believe me until we do.

And in the gospel reading we just heard, if we’re not careful, we can misinterpret that parable to mean that God is going to replace the faith of the Jews with the faith of Christianity.  As though Christianity is the new true religion, and somehow supersedes the Jewish faith.  And, in fact, this very parable has been used over the centuries to claim just that.  And this is the heresy called supersessionism.

There is a way of thinking among some Christians that everything in what we call the Old Testament was just setup for the New Testament.  Like the Jewish faith was a placeholder for the “superior” Christian faith.  That Christianity supersedes the Jewish faith.  Supersessionism is sometimes called “replacement theology,” and is declared heresy.  And anyone who proclaims it is a heretic.  

The Jews did not stop being God’s chosen people when Jesus showed up.  For one thing, Jesus himself was a Jew, as were all twelve of the disciples.  Jesus says he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law.  The Jewish faith informs our faith, and we can only understand Christianity by having one eye on Judaism.  One way to think of it is that Christianity is grafted onto Judaism.  

So, okay, now let’s look at that parable, about the vineyard and the wicked tenants.  Remember, Jesus is telling this parable to the Chief Priests and Elders, the religious leaders of the Jewish faith—the faith of Jesus.  Jesus tells this story about the wicked tenants, and then he asks them the question:  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?  And they answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

And that is the spot where people misread the parable and assume that Jesus is saying, Christianity will replace Judaism.  But that is not what is going on here at all.  Remember: supersessionism is heresy, and Jesus is no heretic.  But their answer does tell us something very important about the Chief Priests and Elders themselves.

Because Jesus lays out a scenario where the tenants are clearly guilty, and then asks, What would you do if you were the landowner?  The Chief Priests and Elders jump right in and say what they’d do:  “Kill the tenants horribly, and then lease the vineyard to people who will pay the rent.”

In psychology terms, we could think of this as one of those Rorschach tests.  You know the ink-blot ones?  You look at it and then you tell the psychologist what you see.  The truth is not in what is actually there; the truth is in what you see.  See?  So Jesus asks the question, and in their answer, the Chief Priests and Elders tell Jesus what kind of people THEY are.  They are the kind of people who respond to injustice by putting those wretches to a miserable death and leasing out the vineyard to someone who will give the produce to the vineyard owner as agreed.     

And that’s a crucial point to notice here.  Jesus is not the one who says that the landowner will kill people and give the land to someone else.  Jesus does not judge the Chief Priests and the Elders.  Jesus doesn’t judge anyone here.  He lays out the facts of the story, and he asks a question.  And the answer to the question tells everyone what they need to know.  And, according to the Chief Priests and Elders, the vineyard should be taken away from the bad tenants and given to someone else who will give him the produce at harvest time.

And here is where we need to slam on the brakes again.  I want you to notice the actual people having the conversation here.  This is Jesus, an observant Jew, talking to the Chief Priests and Elders, also observant Jews.  There is a very old and very wrong way of viewing this story as something like this:

God will take away the vineyard from the Jews and give it to the Christians.  This is completely wrong, and utterly dangerous.  That view of this story is the interpretation that the Nazis used to justify their atrocities.  The very term “replacement theology” brings to mind the horrible chant in Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us.”  Nowhere in here does it suggest God will take the kingdom from the Jews and give it to the Christians.  If anything, God will take the vineyard from the unfaithful and give it to the faithful, whether they are Jewish or Christian or something else entirely.  This is not a story about all the Jews because, again, Jesus was Jewish.  This is a story where the Chief Priests and Elders condemn themselves, plain and simple. 

So then, what about you and me?  Imagine Jesus talking to us, and telling us this parable.  Imagine Jesus lays out a scenario where the tenants are clearly guilty, and then asks, “What would you do if you were the landowner?  What would you do to those tenants?”  Think about how to answer that question, because it reveals a lot about how we view the world, and how we view justice, and how we view . . . well, God.

Because here’s the sneaky thing about this parable:  Jesus never gives the answer.  He quotes a Psalm, and then he talks about himself as the cornerstone.  But he never says what the vineyard owner would do.  Or should do.  Or might do.

So, what would the landowner do?  What would you do?  What would God do?  And that’s, finally, where we DO know the answer.  We know what God would do when God's son is killed.  We like to think that the Chief Priests and Elders killed Jesus.  Or we like to think that the Romans killed Jesus.  It’s easy for us to see this parable and imagine that we are the people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  You know, God takes the vineyard away from the ones who kill the Son, and then gives the vineyard to us.

I am reminded of one of the most powerful hymns that we sing during Holy Week . . .

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.

Now I ask you again, in the words of Jesus, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?  You and I would answer the same as the Chief Priests and Elders, wouldn’t we?  We’d say, He will put those wretches—meaning us—to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.

And what does God actually do?  Here’s the crazy thing:  God raises the Son back to life.  The one he sends to collect what is due, the one we kill, God raises him back to life!  And in doing so, pardons us of every offense.  Every offense.  It’s a completely new beginning!  And you and I did nothing to deserve this fresh start.  If that is not good news, I sure don’t know what is!

We’ve had a lot of these vineyard parables the past few weeks.  Sometimes the meaning is obvious, and sometimes the meaning takes some work to uncover.  But in all of these parables, there is a clear thread of mercy rather than punishment.  A clear thread of the undeserving getting what they don’t deserve.  Jesus never says what the landowner should do, and let us  take our cue from Jesus, and seek after mercy and forgiveness.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.

May God give us the grace to always seek after mercy, the humility to remember that we are part of a larger story, and to always keep our eyes on Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith.


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