Heaven’s Gardens

Scripture: Matthew 21:33-46

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Today’s parable on the surface is a hard teaching; terrifying, even. It seems to illustrate what is currently going on in our times, a pattern that has been repeating since Christ’s time on earth.  The cornerstone is being rejected, the vineyard is being desecrated.  Rejection of Jesus comes from without – but it is also coming from within.  The story is warning us about betrayal.  But it goes farther – even unto hints of supporting fear of divine retaliation.  Before I go any farther unpacking Matthew’s text, let me ask you to reflect deeply on whether or not divine retaliation matches what you understand about the nature of our God.

Now let me start over, at the beginning:

Gen. 1:1

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The first gardens were born – the garden of the heavens and the garden of the earth!  Does that sound better?  Moving on: “2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” For five more days, The first chapter of Genesis tells of God’s creative love unfolding.  More was planted: first the earth’s bounty itself, later the people who were blessed and given the freedom to rule it.  All along we find an echo of God’s love, as the scripture tells us that all that God saw was good.

Later still the Israelites, later even than that the universal pattern of Christ’s rule…all these are the gardens of God’s unfolding creativity, planted in hopes that all might produce fruits of the Kingdom.  If there is one thing we know about God, God is the Great Gardener who plants vineyard upon vineyard and gives it all away!

Returning to the Gospel of Matthew and many eons after sin has entered the world, we find this parabolic illustration where active sabotage takes place against the missional activity of our loving, self-emptying, creative God.  Sabotage doesn’t come from God, after all, a house divided cannot stand (cf. Mark 3:25).  Sabotage comes from me and you and any who may be stuck in negative patterns of envy spiraling downward to entitlement spiraling downward to greed spiraling downward to spiritual death.  The hate crime that took place in White Salmon this last week in the name of Jesus is sad and does not reflect that God is good.  Let us reach out in love and healing to our neighbors, and examine today’s scripture with new eyes.

Why such a negative story with such a fearful intonation in today’s parable?  Let’s step back for a moment and review this pericope in context of the last several chapters of Matthew’s narrative and the next few:

“…the allegorical parables that stretch from Matthew 18:23 to 22:14 (Propers 19–23) seem to cast God as, variously, a king angrily settling accounts, a capricious employer, an aggrieved father, a landlord who seems inclined to violent revenge, and the host of a wedding banquet with anger management issues.”[1]

Now let’s review what Jesus actually says in today’s parable.  The final line spoken by Jesus in the parable of the tenants is a question, not a judgement: Jesus asks the crowd:

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (v. 40) It is the crowd that answers Jesus with an unfortunately very human retaliatory response: “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.”   Note it is not Jesus who passes judgement, the crowd does!  Who is the crowd?

Looking back to the beginning of this dialog, we find in verse 21:23, “When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Can you imagine the scene?  Think of the staging of this for just a minute.  Jesus goes to the Temple to teach.  What greater backdrop can you imagine than the seat of God’s holiness?  And Jesus has the temerity to sit in the Temple and teach?  Whose authority indeed does he invoke?!?  By his very proximity and nearness to the throne of God Almighty, he speaks of what he knows with confidence and absolute righteousness.

Now drop down to verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”

I am going to go out on a limb here, but did you notice what just happened?  As introduced at the beginning of this set of dialogs, we have Jesus and the chief priests and the elders of the people.   Here at this juncture, that has changed to Jesus, the chief priests and the Pharisees…which are a specific set of elders, but not all of them present during this dialog.  What happened to the rest?

Let’s once more examine today’s pericope more closely.  In verse 42, Jesus again addresses the crowd that responded – which we have identified as the chief priests and the elders of the people.  Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

Who is the “our” Jesus invokes?  Who are the builders?  If we were really able to examine Jewish leadership at the time, I might speculate that the entire rubric of interpretation for Torah during the time of Jesus would largely have been created and maintained by the chief priests and the Pharisees – those who have a vested interest in maintaining the leadership status quo that keeps them at the top of the Jewish honor/shame hierarchy!  In that environment, where would a life focused on the Heavenly Kingdom fit into a social structure focused on a human “kingdom?”  Is it any wonder that Matthew writes into his dialog between Jesus and the reigning power structure, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom?” (v. 43)

I submit to you, the other Elders, the ones who truly had ears to hear, heard loud and clear the warning Jesus was laying down.  Not only that, but the warning Matthew was laying down to his mixed congregation of Greek-speaking diaspora Jews and God-fearing Gentile proselytes also heard.  The message?  What it should be like to be a member of a community of truth, of love, of acceptance, and mutual support at a highly charged, somewhat oppressive time in the life of an arrogant empire with a delusional self-perceived lease on ultimate manifest destiny.  If that wasn’t enough, also at a time of highly charged internal family systems reactivity that ultimately separated Christianity from its parent Judaism.

So I ask again, Where – are the other Elders?  They are still there, of course.  But they are no longer aligned with the chief priests and the Pharisees.  They are in deep discernment about their place with Jesus and God.  Now let me ask another question.  In a contemporary setting, even in this sanctuary here and now.  Who are you in the story?

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Richard Spalding, “Theological Perspective, Matthew 21:33-46” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2010). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

Questions for Reflection

Study the parable of the Landowner and the Vineyard. What are the “fruits of the kingdom” to which Jesus alludes in Matthew 21:43? How does your life bear fruit for God’s realm? What do you contribute to the harvest of God that Jesus describes?

Household Prayer: Morning

God of hosts,

at the dawning of this day,

let your face shine upon me.

Restore me,

and be my salvation;

through Jesus the Lord. Amen.


Household Prayer: Evening

Christ Jesus my Lord,

as you have lived with me this day,

let me rest with you this night;

and when this life has ended,

let me live with you forever. Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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