Homily – October 2nd, 2011
Wicked Husbandmen Matthew 21:33-43
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Charles Perrault offers a seventeenth century version of the folktale “Little Red Riding Hood.” In this account, a village girl picks some flowers, follows a butterfly and strays from the path to her grandmother’s house; she meets a wolf. The wolf runs ahead, and he eats grandmother before the girl can arrive. When Little Red Riding Hood arrives, the wolf has disguised himself as grandmother; actually, the wolf desires to eat the girl, but she puts him off, wondering about his long nose, his big eyes, and especially about his big teeth. The wolf leaps out of bed, but Little Red Riding Hood is saved by a woodcutter.
Although this folktale presents a narrative, adults recognize this child’s story as an allegory. The girl is an innocent who does not know the world’s evils. The wolf, is a human predator, and straying from the woodland path suggests leaving the way of virtue, if only briefly. She listens to the wolf, although her mother warned against listening to strangers. A virtuous woodcutter saves her. An allegory offers both the narrative of the girl and narrative of virtue nearly succumbing to vice.
The gospel reading this morning is an allegory. This gospel allegory expects us to know and savor the excerpt from Isaiah (5:1-7). The prophet recounts an allegory of a rich man who shapes a hillside into a vineyard. The rich man clears the ground of stones, and he tills the soil, and he plants choice vines, and he grows a hedge to keep out animals, and he builds a watchtower and a winepress. This rich man does everything for the vineyard, yet it produces only sour grapes. So the owner, although he has done so much to up build it, he will now destroy the unproductive, the faithless vineyard. He says,
I will make it a ruin:
It shall not be pruned or hoed,
But overgrown with thorns and briers;
I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it.
The prophet adds the explanation: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant.”
Matthew’s gospel recounts our Lord speaking to the chief priests and
elders of the people. Jesus brings from Isaiah the old story of Israel as the vineyard of the Lord. And Jesus adds to the old allegory this new allegory. In this narrative, the landowner again plants a vineyard as in the Isaiah account and then the landlord leases the vineyard to tenants, and the owner goes away to a foreign country. However, when the time comes to harvest the valuable grapes, the landowner sends servants to collect the produce. But these tenants are wicked.
First these tenants beat the owner’s servant-ambassador, and they kill one, and they stone the third. These wicked tenants even murder the owner’s son. Thus the owner eventually comes and puts these wicked tenants to death, and he then leases the vineyard to more honest farmers.
We can hardly question that Our Lord tells this story in allegory form, where the vineyard is Israel, the wicked tenants are Israel’s rulers and leaders who refuse to live religiously according to the covenant; the owner of the vineyard is God, the servant-messengers are the prophets, the son of the vineyard owner is Christ. Also clear is that the punishment of the husbandmen symbolizes the ruin of Israel and that the other people suggest the Gentiles to whom the Church will be given. This whole parable offers us an allegory.
All of this can be seen today. I know of an Eastern Washington farmer who agreed to plant and harvest several thousand acres of wheat in exchange for two-thirds of the crop; one third of the crop or profit would come to the property owner. Share-cropping remains today a way of negotiation and contract. And we know that vineyards thrive not far from us, even here on Bainbridge Island. The story elements live among us, although Christ tells the story.
In the gospel, Jesus does not pronounce judgment on all Israel, for to Israel God remains faithful. These leaders, however, hear the condemnation, all the time refusing to see themselves as greedy, murderous thieves. Yet quite shortly, they plot to crucify Jesus, acting like the murderous tenants of the allegory who stoned and murdered the ambassadors of the owner. God’s vineyard will be taken from the leaders; to the followers of Jesus goes the vineyard.
You and I are Christians, companions of Jesus. Are we more worthy than the tenants in the allegory? True, at baptism we rejected Satan and all Satan’s works. We professed our faith in our creating God, in our redeeming Lord, in the sanctifying Spirit, in the Church, in the forgiveness of sin, in the resurrection of the body and in life everlasting. This, we said, is our faith; this is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it. At baptism, we entered into this mode of life. We ask, “How did the leaders of religious faith at the time of Jesus fail to recognize His miracles, His teaching and mode of life, His total dedication to the work of God the Father?” If religion was taken from them—and Jesus’ parable of the wicked husbandmen states this in allegorical form—we ask ourselves, to what degree have we cherished our baptismal, Christian faith? Those scribes and Pharisees were fully educated in their Mosaic covenant; when did they cease to care less, gradually end their prayer so that they could no longer have an open channel to their creator? Faith was taken from those husbandmen; God endowed other people with the insight of faith. How have we brought forth the true vintage of our baptismal faith?