PRODUCING FRUITS OF THE KINGDOM
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
June 18, 2017
Text: Matthew 21: 33-46
Preaching a parable, wrote Ken Untener, is a bit like going into a haunted house without a flashlight; of course, Bishop Untener knew how difficult it was to preach almost any statement attributed to Jesus as he struggled to help bring the church into an open and welcoming approach on many issues that concerned people living in today’s world.
The traditional interpretation of the parable we just read has remained the same: The vineyard represents Israel, as it did in many other parables and in countless references by the prophets. The slaves and/or servants sent to the
vineyard represent the prophets themselves. The king’s son in the traditional interpretation represents God’s son who, of course, is also killed. Just in case his listeners didn’t get it, Jesus spells out its meaning in excruciating detail.
This is one of the parables in a trilogy composed by Matthew about Jesus after he has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The Matthean version is close to the one in Luke and Mark although each evangelist clearly felt free to allegorize
the parable in a different way. This parable is also in the Gospel of Thomas and is similar to a rabbinic parable referring to Jacob as the heir constructing the new
Israel to be a land of justice and plenty.
However, what is common to all three versions is that the chief priests and Pharisees who heard the parable realized that it was directed against them; they were the wicked tenants. Matthew’s version then adds: “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.” The text goes on to say that they wanted to arrest him but feared the people because they, that is, the people, regarded him as a prophet.
In a society where the poor were crushed by an overwhelming tax burden to both religious and secular authorities, this parable offered promise, a promise of
delivery from their poverty and establishment of justice. And, if we look at this parable as it speaks to us today, we can see both a warning and a promise.
Although the imagery can be seen to be problematic, it clearly warns that the fruits of the kingdom will be taken away from the wicked and given to those who work to produce those fruits. The vineyard , God’s earth and world, will be leased to other tenants who will produce the fruits. Imagine yourself an oppressed peasant who has struggled to produce enough to pay the taxes and feed the family
and the retribution promised in the parable looks good.
We generally eschew violence in our society because we live under the illusion that change occurs peacefully. But that is not our history in Western culture nor is it necessarily our history in the United States. It took the violence of a Civil War to end slavery because the South had no intention of freeing slaves.
Indeed, after the war and the end of Reconstruction, the South figured out ways to go back to its old system under another name. Sharecropping was no different than
slavery and the violence that occurred in order to maintain that system was only different in kind with the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils.
When we hear a parable like this, or some of the others that promise the weeping and gnashing of teeth for the wicked and rewards for the righteous, most of us tend to downplay this part of the parable. In today’s parable Jesus states that the wicked tenants would be put to a miserable death, and that the chief priests and the Pharisees knew he was talking about them. No wonder they wanted to arrest Jesus but did not do so as stated before because as the text tells us the people regarded him as a prophet and they feared the crowds.
The wicked tenants can be likened to those who hold power illegitimately. To be sure, those leaders fear the crowds as well they should. Over the past week we have seen images out of Russia of violent response to protests against the corruption of the regime, peaceful protestors being assaulted by the police and in many cases, arrested.
Romanians had a happier ending to protests against corruption in the government. As a result of student-led protests, the Romanian Parliament passed anti-corruption legislation, sparing the wicked tenants a fate of dying wretchedly. Unfortunately, thank to Russian air support, those protesting Syria’s Al-Assad found themselves cut off from the world and have become some of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence that leader has inflicted on his own people.
What do we do with wicked tenants, corrupt people in positions of power who inflict their corruption on the people? How do we as Christians respond to those who would destroy the vineyard rather than letting it yield good fruits and
how do we do this non-violently? I leave to God the ultimate judgment on those who create immoral and unjust policies. I just want to have a strategy for defeating them here and now so that fruits fit for the kingdom can be produced.
Developing a strategy is a pretty daunting task. First, there needs to be some kind of overarching vision and mission. In other words, all the disparate elements need to develop a positive rather than a negative. We just can’t be opposed to something; we need to be for something. We need to have a goal in mind, and by that I mean something more concrete than universal peace and community.
Turning a negative into a positive is difficult. Being against segregation, whether by race, class, ethnic group, or religion is not enough. The development and use of the word “desegregation” made being against segregation whether by law or culture into a positive goal, one that could be embraced by any civil rights movement. In today’s world we hear the word “multiculturalism,” both as a
negative and a positive, to describe cultural diversity. Those who promote cultural diversity, however, need to develop a common goal.
Then we need to have some specific goals and objectives. This is one of the places that the community of peace, love, and brotherhood begins to fall apart. Trying to make this more concrete can become a real problem as the organizers of Occupy Wall Street soon learned. Once we have developed positive goals and objectives, then there need to be a strategic plan for accomplishing them. This is where many movements fail.
Looking at our capabilities, our limitations can stop some people in their tracks but we should learn how to use our limitations as a challenge. We need to learn ow take advantage of our limitations rather than having them stand as an insurmountable wall. And here we begin to move from a grand strategy into sensible tactics aimed at making sure the trees produce the fruits.
Much of developing the mission and strategy involves listening and acknowledging our own limits, not easy for many I suspect. We give lip service to our limits but in reality are less likely to act in a positive manner when we are
forced to face them as we strive to develop those fruits.
That makes sense, of course, because we all come from different perspectives, not to mention the fact that our ideas about what the fruits of the kingdom should be from time to time. A good example is a more egalitarian tax policy. But what does that mean for us? Even though most of us may agree that such a policy is necessary, we will differ as to how to achieve it.
In the time of Jesus many different groups had developed goals, objectives, and strategic plans for usurping the wicked tenants, the religious leadership of the day that collaborated with the Roman occupiers. They never quite got it all
together. The movie The Life of Brian parodies this very well: several groups of conspirators are sitting separately in a Roman amphitheater. One group says it is the “Committee for the liberation of Palestine” and another group says it is the
“Committee for Palestinian liberation” and they do not talk to each other.
Learning to cooperate with those who have similar goals in developing a strategic plan for the fruits of the kingdom is essential. In the political scene today we see many different groups opposed to this or that, but the fractiousness of those
groups destroys their ability to develop a collaborative relationship. The same is true in communities and churches.
We also need to understand the warning that Jesus gives: that the wicked will die a wretched death. We cannot erase our complicity in political decision-making. As much as we may wat to distance ourselves form the wicked tenants,
inaction is a form of complicity in their continued rule. If we as Christians are not active and do not make it clear that our faith is the basis of our action, we yield the ground to those who claim that their fear, prejudice, and hate find their origin in religion, specifically Christianity. Mainline, polite Christians have too long let the know nothings claim Jesus as their guide.
It is our obligation as Christians to reclaim the Gospel and to use it as the basis of goals and to develop objectives and strategies to overcome the fear, prejudice, and hate that have become cancers in our society. Developing a positive
vision of what our society can be is the first step. A disparate group of men did it before when they agreed on a Constitution. We can do it again.
Let us pray: In this time of so much division, we come to you, O Guiding Spirit, asking for your wisdom as we seek to grow the fruits that will yield a world reflecting your vision for our lives. In the name of him who came to bring us that
vision, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.