Letting the Story Interpret Us
October 2, 2011
Text: Matthew 21:33-46
I’ve heard that our primary task when reading the parables is not to try to interpret them, but to allow them to interpret us. Jesus was speaking to a particular audience in a particular time (challenging the Pharisees the day after he had stormed the temple, overturning the tables of their status quo—revoking the idea that religion passively stands by while the poor are being trampled). He was trying to break through to a religious audience gathered at the temple. This morning, what might he be trying to say to this religious audience in this temple? How does the parable of the “evil tenants” interpret you this morning? Who are you in this story, as you are experiencing life today?
Are you the landowner, at a stage of life where you feel like it’s time to step back some, focus a bit more on being than doing, letting others manage your vineyard?
Maybe this is a period when you get to enjoy the harvest of your hard work and can explore new lands. Maybe you’ll find a new call, who knows? Or maybe you have forfeited too much authority, too soon? Has your retirement created a gap in leadership that could bring the collapse of all you’ve worked for?
Or maybe you are one of the tenants, one of the chosen ones who was entrusted with the authority to carry on the work of the Master. And now, for whatever reason, your faithfulness has begun to waver. Perhaps you’ve grown tired and anxious, uncertain that your work is appreciated. Or maybe anger, disappointment, even revenge—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt—have started to poison the crop’s sweetness, and the ground of your being starts to yield the bitter fruit of violence. You find yourself acting like someone you don’t recognize or respect.
Or maybe you are one of the servants, content to be one of “the least of these” working in the vineyard day by day without too much notice. You’ve grown accustomed to helping in a hundred different ways but not having to be ultimately responsible for the operation. You’re ready to respond to the Master’s call whatever it might be, whenever it comes. As long as it’s not too lofty, “Here I am, Lord. Send me,” is your mantra.
In this parable, we notice there are even two different groups of servants. Which ones do you imagine yourself to be in? The first are those I’ve just described, who have no idea they will be making the ultimate sacrifice of a violent death; they simply go to the vineyard, as they have gone on so many other assignments, for no reason other than the Master asked them to go. The second group, however, knows full well what they are facing. These are the servants who went to El Salvador in the 1980s, not to do a few good deeds but deliberately because of the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter. They are the Freedom Riders who continued going to Mississippi even after the violence had begun. They are those who have that extra measure of courage and freedom to live or to die for their cause. Are you one of the servants who will not only answer ‘yes’ when called, but again will say ‘yes’ when you know the personal threat.
Or maybe you are the son, the rightful heir of the entire vineyard. Would you dare cast yourself in this role? Could you ever imagine that you, too, are the uniquely chosen child of the Master? Learning of the mass slaughter of all those servants, whom you have known and most likely loved for so many years, would you go? Isn’t your life too precious to lay down in this foolish way? But if you go, surely the tenants will listen to you, will heed your authority. Or will they? How will you decide whether to go or to stay home? Are you able to offer yourself freely, sacrificing your status, your birthright, even with the likelihood of a tragic end?
Or maybe you are experiencing yourself more generically, as one of life’s unnamed, anonymous rejected ones, a square peg in a world of round holes, a lifelong struggler instead of an achiever, a misfit who doesn’t see things the way others do and still hasn’t found a place to belong. The parable says you, too, have a part to play. You are not forgotten in this story. It will be the rejected who end up being the cornerstone of new possibilities. Could that be you? The cornerstone? In some ways, yes, an all-out reject, yet with potential beyond the imagining, some part of you solid and sure, for what God is building now?
When we stop interpreting the parables and let the parables interpret us, we can’t say ‘but wait—isn’t it only Jesus who can be the cornerstone of God’s new thing?’ When the parables interpret us,and our times, we begin to see the masses of people who have been rejected and oppressed and overlooked; we see all the hidden parts of ourselves that we have rejected and ridiculed and dismissed; and we have to wonder if it might be true—that we might be the ones called to be the beginning of something new. Maybe God does have a continuing plan of redemption in mind for our world—and maybe it will use us!
The cornerstone, traditionally, is the first piece of masonry set in place for construction. It is the most important because all the other stones or bricks in the structure will need to align with the cornerstone. If the cornerstone has integrity, so will the building itself. You would never want to use the weakest stone, the one most apt to crumble, as the cornerstone. And yet the parable seems to be saying the Builder who is God has another way. This Builder does use “the least of these”—the rejected—to be the aligning agents of the new community, God’s new society of love.
But how will this new, upside-down way of being emerge? Are we to try to make it happen? Are we to seek out rejection? Considering the parable, were the servants and the son looking for rejection when they headed to the vineyard? No, they were looking for LIFE—which is to be faithful to the call of the Master, for the sake of the common good. It was not death but life that freed them to go, despite the rejection that would follow.
And God, too, faithful to making a good return on every investment, turns even the ultimate rejection—death at the hands of evil—into new beginnings. The vineyard will be given to new tenants, who will value it and redeem it. We are not sent into the vineyard of this world in order to become the rejected, the despised, the least and the last—but so that we might find the narrow gate into an abundant harvest despite the rejection we encounter.
Discipleship is not one grand leap into completion, but thousands of small steps and stumbles. Real life, abundant life, isn’t what we get once we arrive at the end result; it’s what we get all along the way, step by step into the unknown. The servants and the son were not charged with making sure things turned out okay; they were responsible only for going. We, too, choose daily whether to act or not to act, whether to get up or give up.
Just as with any other activity, we improve in direct relation to how much we practice. What are we practicing at being and doing these days? Is working toward the common good becoming more, or less, common among us? Will we, like the early communities of Christians, be known for the love in our midst, for noticing need and responding? Do we seek out the luminaries of our time for wisdom and guidance, or do we seek out the rejected, where God’s “next-best-thing” is most likely to be emerging?
How is God’s story interpreting us these days? May we humble ourselves to learn from each other and from the rejected how to be more generous and faithful tenants of our vineyard so that seeds of love and justice will take deeper root in ways that make a real difference—ways that are worth being rejected for; worth, even, dying for.