Today in the Spirit: Proper 22A

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In Proper 22A, for a Gospel reading, the Church assigns the second in a series of three parables of Jesus in Matthew addressed to the religious leaders of Jerusalem in the week leading up to the crucifixion. Spoken right after the Parable of the Two Sons assigned last Sunday, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21:33-44 increases the intensity level of God’s judgment against the Pharisees, with Jesus stating bluntly that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them, just like the evil tenants in the parable are violently removed from the vineyard of the landowner.

It’s all vines and vineyards in the supporting readings appointed to accompany this parable. The OT reading out of Isaiah 5:1-7 is often called the Song of the Vineyard, expressing the love of YHWH for his vineyard Israel, which he himself has established and cultivated. Psalm 80 is a lament of the people of Israel who have witnessed their nation steadily declining by the hand of God because of their sin, and so comes the prayer to YHWH elohim sabaot (LORD God of Hosts) to restore his people.

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The next NT reading in the sequence from Philippians in Year A is from Philippians 3:14-21, part of Paul’s autobiographical witness to what it means to humble oneself in the likeness of Christ described in Chapter Two, our Epistle reading last week. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (14). (Here is another instance where pastors might choose to include earlier verses in this great section of the epistle; otherwise, we miss them altogether until Lent 5C). The Collect (which comes back to us from the 1662 BCP) is a prayer similar to others in this part of the church year: for the Church to be preserved in “continual goodness” to serve God in good works for his glory.        

The Collect

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in continual godliness, that through your protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly serve you in good works, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

He Looked for It to Yield Grapes (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Let me sing for my beloved    my love song concerning his 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;
and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its 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 briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds    that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!

This little love song, which seems to drop from the air into the harsher beginning chapters of Isaiah, is clearly the inspiration for Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants assigned for our Gospel reading. In the opening Let me sing, the me is Isaiah himself. However, as the poem develops, the prophet cites the words of YHWH (note: most English translations have quotation marks around verses 3-6, but not the ESV). There is exasperation in the voices of both YHWH and Isaiah. They love the vineyard Israel but despise what has happened to it as a result of the rebellious spirit and idolatrous practices of the people: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

Devotionally, we need to permit that divine frustration to sink into our inner parts, both as individual Christians and as church communities. It is true: we, the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), are in a favored position over Isaiah’s Israel. We enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ ministry of forgiveness on the cross and new life from the Holy Spirit. With fresh kingdom air, our Lord breathed on us and said, Receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). And yet, we know, as in this passage, God continually looks for good fruit in us and still finds an abundance of wild grapes (or bad fruit NIV).  

Today, in the Spirit, we absorb this reading from Isaiah and Jesus’ parable; with, yes, the assurance that things this side of the cross are decidedly different, but also with the humility to sense the exasperation of God looking for in us evidence of all things new.

Restore Us O God (Psalm 80:(1-6)7-19)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.
    Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh,
stir up your might
    and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved! (1-3).

The vineyard imagery in the Gospel parable is prefigured in our assigned psalm. One feature of this psalm is the intense focus on the community–the nation of Israel, the people of God. It is probably a song for some large-scale gathering at the temple. So, though we cannot make too much of it, we should note that there is no “I” in this psalm, just us: Restore us (or Return to us) is the refrain of the song (3,7,14,19). The outlook of the lyrics is toward the state of the whole people, the psalmist included, and to the heart of YHWH in covenant relationship with the group.

Sometimes, we can get too stuck on ourselves as individuals. We become too content when things go well for us personally and too downhearted when they do not. Either way, we grow idle with respect to a gospel compulsion in the world, too bloated from self-satisfaction or too neuroticized by navel-gazing. C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.” So we can either be a mirror of God or those who are just looking into a mirror. It is better to be, like this psalmist, one reflecting God in his joy and pain over the world around us.

Today, in the Spirit, we hear the voice of this psalmist and ask to be lifted out of the stupor from too much contemplation of ourselves and our circumstances so as to cry out, You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. And Restore us, O God.  

I Press On (Philippians 3:14-21)

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained (12-16).

The Greek word (diōkō) translated I press on in many English Bible translations expresses a rabid focus on whatever enterprise is in view. It can be a word for a fanatic or even a persecutor. Paul uses it twice in this section of the epistle to describe his intense attention to two things: 1) to know Christ in his experience in his mortal life (see verses 3:10-11), and in our passage, 2) to receive the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus after death. 

A devotional question to ask might be, what, if anything, are you pressing on toward? Many of us like to think it is good and healthy to avoid “fanaticism” in any area. Okay, any passion that causes us to act out in behavioral extremes without caring how much that might hurt others is good to avoid; but what about those goals (to use Paul’s word in the passage) to which we are secretly zealous but do not care to admit to? Some of them, like financial wealth, career promotions, or even family happiness, taken to the extremes are quiet passions that are culturally acceptable but not godly.

Watch out for that pressing on toward that which is lesser than Christ and that lukewarm, low-level passion for Christ that gives you just enough spiritual impulse to feel good about your Christian walk even when Christ is looking for much more. Does not Jesus say, But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33)? And did we not hear from Paul in Romans just weeks ago using more fervid language, Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord (Romans 12:10-11).

Today, Holy Spirit, let me do nothing more to shield myself from Paul’s zeal to press on toward knowing you and being where you are forever.

Come, Let Us Kill Him (Matthew 21:33-44)

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him (37-39).

If the earlier parables of Jesus are hiding the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11)  from his listeners, the three in this section of Matthew (21:28-44), from which our Gospel readings come for three weeks running, do not. The religious leaders listening to Jesus easily understand that he is speaking doom to them (see verses 45-46) for their long disobedience to the prophets, and especially for the execution of the Son of God, which they are about to arrange. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew even adds Jesus’ explicit prophecy that they will be cast out of the kingdom of God (vv. 43-44).

In the case of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, it may be harder for Christians to tease out devotional value. What can possibly be added to our growth in the Lord as believers from a story explicitly about the judgment against those who refuse to believe? One thing is perhaps an implied warning about the dynamic of smaller disobedience leading to bigger disobedience. The wicked tenants in the parable clearly gain confidence in their acting out as the master’s servants keep coming (note: in Matthew’s version, servants are dispatched in greater numbers). Their crazed optimism that they can actually succeed in their plot to usurp the place of the son increases as they continue to escape punishment for the treatment of the servants. I wonder if this developing evil in the tenants may be what Jesus refers to in his cryptic warning to the disciples: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. Seed-like hypocrisy, Jesus explains in Luke, secret though it may be at first, will come to light (see Luke 12:1-3).

Today, in the Spirit, we see in Parable of the Wicked Tenants that Jesus will be the stumbling block to the faithless Pharisees of Israel, but we also take warning from it of small sin that can get bigger in us and more destructive if we are not careful.     

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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