Matthew 21: 33-46
The lectionary editors got it right this week. They paired up the right OT reading with this morning’s Gospel Indeed, we’re going to want to compare the two readings to avoid a misreading of Scripture that, I believe, led to the Holocaust We’ll come back to that. In the OT reading, it’s harvest time in ancient Israel. They’re celebrating with a festival in Jerusalem. There is singing, dancing and wine for everyone – a weeklong celebration! In the midst of all this celebration emerges a young Isaiah – and perhaps he’s holding a guitar in his hand. “Let me sing you a song!” he announces.
The crowd gathers round him in a hush and Isaiah begins his song about his friend who owned a vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines: He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now the song is ended. Isaiah face takes on a rigid countenance. His tone of voice takes on an accusatory tone as speaks the words of the vineyard owner: What more could I have done for my vineyard? Why did it yield wild grapes?
The questions answers itself. There was nothing more the owner could have done to grow good grapes. So the verdict is handed down. I will remove the hedge and it shall be devoured I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned, or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.
And lest anyone miss the connection, Isaiah speaks plainly at the end. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel. Remember that line. We’ll come back to it. And, indeed, history shows that God did remove his hand of protection from the Jewish people. In 567 BC the Babylonians tore down the walls of Jerusalem and kidnapped the nation.
Fast forward 800 years and another prophet stands in Jerusalem. It’s the day after Palm Sunday. Jesus goes to the Temple and begins his teaching. He’s interrupted by the religious hierarchy: “What authority do you have to do these things you do?” Jesus offers a parable about a vineyard. Now, the religious leaders might have thought Jesus was repeating Isaiah’s parable. He does up to a point. But then he goes in a new direction.
Jesus introduces “tenants” into the story – tenants who work the vineyard. And he puts the owner far away from the vineyard. When the harvest comes, the problem isn’t wild grape. The problem this time is that the tenants have begun acting like owners. They don’t fork over the rents.
The Owner sends his servants to collect the produce, but the tenants attack them. The Owner sends a second contingent and they receive the same treatment. Finally, he sends his son, and the tenants kill the son.
In Isaiah, the Owner tears down the protective walls of the vineyard. But in Jesus’ parable, the Owner judges the tenants who take care of the vineyard – he replaces them.
The religious hierarchy had no problem interpreting the parable. They knew that they were the tenants. They were beginning acting like owners.
The judgment is clear. God will take away their leadership and give it to some new tenants.This parable is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. We can see why Jesus was confronting the religious hierarchy. But what compelled the Gospel writers to retell this story after Jesus resurrection and ascension? Were the Gospel writers striking out at the Jewish synagogues of their time?
I think that they picked up some critical information in Jesus’ parable that the church needed to know. Information revealed in this parable about God’s character. And information revealed about our place in God’s kingdom.
Let’s consider first God’s character. God is the Owner of the vineyard. He sends his first set of servants. One servant is beaten. The second one is killed. And the third one is stoned. It’s the story of the various prophets that God sent to Israel.
In the Middle East, personal honor is held in extremely high esteem. What owner would not be furious with the injustice perpetrated by these rebellious tenants? The owner sends a second contingent of servants and they are treated the same as the first. How much insult will the owner tolerate? He’d be honor-bound to deal with the matter.
But look what the Owner does. He doesn’t call the authorities, and he doesn’t send in an armed militia. He sends his son…….alone.
The difference between Isaiah’s parable and Jesus’ parable is the response of the vineyard owner. It’s a radical twist that Jesus’ audience could never anticipate. In Isaiah, the owner exercises judgment – he tears down the walls of the vineyard But in Jesus’ parable the owner opts for total vulnerability in the face of violence
I think it’s that twist that caught the eye of the Gospel writers. Because the twist tells us that God is noble. God is long suffering. God goes the extra mile for us.
Jesus parable also says something about our place in God’s kingdom, our mindset if you will.
When George W. Bush gave his State of the Union Address in 2005, he said he wanted to create an ownership society. “I want America to be an ownership society, a society where a life of work becomes a retirement of independence. Ownership in our society should not be an exclusive club. … Everyone should be a part owner in the American dream.” Sounds pretty good! And it might be a good policy for the United States of America. But for the Kingdom of God, it’s heresy.
Now I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the fruits of their labors. And given the choice, I’ll take a private 401(k) plan over Social Security.
But in the kingdom of God, there is a different mindset. The Kingdom of God is not an ownership society. Because in the Kingdom of God, there is only one owner – God. We just take possession of God’s property for a time. Or as Paul reminds young Timothy: “We brought nothing into this world and we cannot take anything out of the world.”
Now there’s another twist in Jesus parable and it probably went unnoticed in the Early Church. In Isaiah, the Owner tears down the walls and the vineyard is judged. Isaiah tells us that the vineyard is the House of Israel – the Jewish people.
Who gets judged in Jesus’ parable? It’s not the vineyard that gets judged. It’s the wicked tenants that are judged. It’s the leadership over the vineyard that will be judged and replaced with new leadership.
That’s a crucial point because it addresses what I think is a dangerous teaching that seeped into the church in early times. That teaching concerns Israel.
Initially, Christianity was a religion of Jews. Jesus was born a Jew, the apostles were all Jews, Paul was a Jew. But very quickly, Gentiles were brought into the faith.
It raises the question: What about those Jews who never accepted Jesus as the Messiah? What happens to all the OT promises made to Abraham and his descendents?
There is a school of thought that says that after Pentecost, the Christian church replaced Israel. So that the OT promises made to Israel are to now be interpreted as promises made to the Church.This school of thought is called Replacement Theology – that is, the church has replaced Israel. But this wasn’t the Apostles’ teaching.
Here what Paul says: “Has God cast away his people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew.
He goes on to say “Concerning the gospel they [the Jews] are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
Replacement Theology was introduced when Gentile leadership took over the church in the late 2nd century. They essentially cast aside Israel as God’s chosen people. And that theology would give an opening for the rise of anti-Semitism. It would culminate in the Nazi Holecaust.
The parable tells us that the religious hierarchy would be replaced with new leadership. And, indeed, that is what happened. Jesus installed the 12 JEWISH apostles over his very Jewish church.
That’s important to understand particularly today in our relationship with the State of Israel. God doesn’t go back on his promises. When God promised the land to Israel, that was a promise made to Jews. And it was an everlasting promise – not a contingent one. And God told Abraham that he will bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse Abraham.
John Somerville is a retired Marine Colonel living in North Fork. He’s just published a book called The “Accidental” Presidents Who Became the “Blessers” of Israel.
In his book he chronicles the history of four men who were unlikely to be elected President of the United States. And, yet, by strange turns of events, they were. It was these accidental presidents who were instrumental to bless Israel to become the most improbably successful and resilient nation that she is today.
First there was Harry Truman – a failed haberdashery store owner from Missouri. After serving a couple of terms as county judge, Harry was elected senator in 1935. FDR needed a token vice president to fill the slot. He needed someone who would not bring any baggage to the ticket – a boy scout. Truman was his pick. Except Truman didn’t want the job. FDR had to guilt him in to taking it. Who knew that FDR would die just 82 days into his fourth term? That unlikely haberdashery store owner from Missouri assumed the Oval Office.
As a boy, Truman’s best friend was a Jewish boy named Eddie Jacobstein. They served together in the Missouri National Guard and later opened their haberdashery together.
In 1947, the UN struggled to come up with a plan to partition Palestine. They were wanted to give the world’s disposed Jews a homeland. American Jews were divided on the proposed Partition Plan and Truman got fed up with the heavy handed lobbying of the Jewish proponents.
Chaim Weizmann was a Zionist leader. He made a trip to New York hoping for just five minutes to talk with Truman before the UN would shelve the plan. Weizmann was the last hope of the Zionist to reach the American President. But Truman’s mind was made up, and the door was shut.
That’s when Eddie Jacobstein made a trip to Washington to pay a visit to his old friend. After a heated discussion in the Oval Office, Truman relented and agreed to see Weizmann. That five minute meeting turned out to go a little longer. At the end, Truman was onboard. He not only agreed to vote for the UN partition, but promised to be the first to recognize the Israel when it would become a state. He came through on May 14, 1948, 11 minutes after the State of Israel was proclaimed.
Fast forward to 1963. Lyndon Johnson had served as Kennedy’s vice President in name only. Lyndon was on the ticket to deliver Texas. But after the election, he was shut out of the Kennedy administration. His political base had moved on without him in Texas. The rising star in Texas was Governor John Conley.
On that Dallas morning, it was Conley who rode with Kennedy in the Presidential limousine. Johnson several cars behind. Moreover, rumor had it that Kennedy was going to drop him from the ticket for reelection. Lee Harvey Oswald changed Johnson from a political has-been to an accidental President.
Three years later, the armies of Egypt and Syria were lining up on Israel’s borders to take revenge for the defeat they had suffered in the 1948 Arab Israeli War. In a phone call with the Israeli prime minister, he cautioned Israel not to strike first. Then Israel struck first and defeated her enemies in six days. Israel gained three times the land she had and reunited Jerusalem.
The UN nations began to coalesce against Israel to return all of the captured land. But Johnson had already convinced Arthur Goldberg to give up his seat on the Supreme Court to become his UN Ambassador. Goldberg’s role was critical for Israel. At the UN, he skillfully neutralized the effort against it.
Johnson strengthened our relationship to a whole new level. He pointed American policy in a pro-Israel direction that would continue and grow in the decades ahead.
Richard Nixon was the third accidental President. In 1960, he lost to John Kennedy by a razor-thin margin. Two years later he lost a race for governor in California to Pat Brown. After that election, he told the press, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Then, he returned in 1968 to succeed Lyndon Johnson to the Presidency. Four years later, he was reelected by a landslide.
So how did this accidental President bless Israel. On October 6, 1973, the whole country of Israel had come to a standstill. It was Yom Kippur, one of the high holy days of the year. That’s when Egypt and Syria launched their attack.
The Israelis were caught off guard as by the Egyptian and Syrian armies with their advanced Soviet weapons. Israeli Prime Minister called Henry Kissinger for help. Nixon knew that an Arab victory in this war would be a victory of and by Soviet arms. That would open the flood gates for Soviet influence in the region. Nixon ordered Kissinger to send them everything they asked for and fast. The U.S. airlifted weapons and supplies for the next 32 days and 567 flight missions.
Nixon would end up resigning his office over the Watergate scandal. But shortly after the Yom Kippur war, Golda Meir told a group of Jewish leaders in Washington: For generations to come all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.
Nixon would be the first President to recognize Israel not just as a moral commitment, but a strategic asset to the United States.
The final “accidental President” is Donald Trump. When he entered the race, most people thought he was doing it as a publicity stunt. No one expected him to win. Right up to election night, all the polls predicted his defeat. And then a man who had never sought political office was elected President of the United States.
For years, candidates for President have promised to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And when they get into office, they renege on their promise. It’s too dangerous. It will cause an uprising among the Palestinians. The Arab street will retaliate. It could cause a third wold war.
Candidate Donald Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem. When he was elected President, he fulfilled that promise. The response? Some outraged Palestinian leaders blustered. The UN General Assembly voted to condemn the move.
Two years later the White House announced that it had brokered the normalization of relations between Israel and two Arab states: the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Relations between the Arabs and Jews have never been better and are improving.
As we watch the progress of Israel, we see the invisible divine hand at work. God used the accidental presidents to bless Israel. He does that. He uses the unlikely and seemingly unqualified people to carry out his plan.
The people you and I might never have chosen, God chooses and uses. He does it so we can take heart that he can and will use “nobodies” like us for his divine purpose. And he does it to show that, at the end of the day, he is the Owner of the vineyard. We are the tenants.
As we live our lives, As we order our own priorities, As we manage our possessions, Let us remember that God is the Owner. He is a noble Owner who sent his Beloved Son to give his life for us so that we might live in his vineyard forever.