Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 October 2017)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus said to the people: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 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 get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’? (Psalm 118.22-23)
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 one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Isaiah 18.14-15)
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because the people regarded him as a prophet.
It could have been us.
On Sunday evening our office manager drove by the country music concert venue in Las Vegas only ten minutes before the first bullets were fired. Mercifully, she and her vacationing husband spent the night in the Las Vegas airport rather than an ER, or the morgue. Though she was never in real danger, she was close. It could have been her.
On Monday morning authorities and family members went to an Orlando nursing home to tell the gunman’s mother that her son had committed mass murder. My own mother is elderly and lives in a nursing home. Though none of the eight of us Post kids will likely be an assassin, the shooter’s elderly mother is not much different from mine.
On Thursday morning, we learned that the gunman had been casing other venues for his violence—Chicago’s Lollapalooza for one. Usually the biggest tragedy at an outdoor concert venue is the long line at the Porta Potties. The thought of Grant Park’s lovely lake-side arena awash in blood and bullets was jolting. It could have been us.
On Friday evening, CNN’s Anderson Cooper sat on a stool on a dark sound stage telling stories of the 58 killed Sunday night. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. Children. Spouses. Fiancés. Best friends. Their only “crime” was that they love country music and a cold beer. Any one of them could have been us.
It was. It was one of us.
I am ashamed to say that one of my first fears on hearing the news was about the identity of the gunman. If he had been black or brown, Mexican or Muslim, you know exactly what the public outcry would have been. Instead (twisted sigh of relief), the shooter was male, white, wealthy, with no criminal past.* The shooter could have been us. So instead of inevitable demands for tighter borders or higher walls or greater surveillance, the whole country stood shaking its head.
What does it mean that someone whose profile so closely matches ours would commit a crime that none of us, not in our darkest moment, could even imagine, let alone execute? What does it mean that an otherwise ordinary man would take extraordinary measures to murder fun-loving country music fans, a man whose mother loves him, whose life any of us would envy? Listen carefully–its not his whiteness or his “guyness” or his wealth that makes him so like us, but the remarkably unremarkable nature of the life he led; a life so like ours. What triggered him to pull the trigger—again and again and again?
Jesus tells his disciples a parable about an almost-as-gruesome crime scene, this one set in a vineyard, not at a music venue. In Jesus’ imagined vineyard, previously-hardworking tenant farmers with no prior history broke their contract, committed vicious acts and, to employ a canine metaphor, bit the hand that fed them. Mercifully, this horrible tale is fictional, not front page.
What prompted their murderous outburst? Maybe the landlord abused them. Maybe their working conditions were inhumane. Maybe the slaves who came to collect the produce harmed them. Surely, there was a reason, a motive, a message scrawled somewhere. But there is no easy explanation for their premeditated murder—as if any explanation would ease the pain.
What happened to those suddenly-murderous grape pickers, who inexplicably turned their wine presses into weapons? Jesus has a thought.
You may have heard striking similarities between today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 5.1-7) and Jesus’ parable. Isaiah also wrote of a vineyard lovingly tended and managed. A vineyard attacked, not by crazed tenant farmers, but by the vines themselves—vines that sprouted small sour pebbles rather than rich ruby grapes. In frustration, the vineyard owner threatens a lawsuit against his vines: “Judge between me and my vineyard!” And then he wept to anyone who would listen, “What more was there to do for you that I have not already done?”
Jesus’ hearers would have recognized the similarities, too.
Both the Ancient Seer and the Son of God speak a truth that hits us hard.
Everything we need, we already have. Everything we need is already known.
I’m not talking about material things—we have plenty of things, too many things. Nor am I talking about the secret cravings of our hearts—whether those cravings are dark desires for control, power, revenge, or broken-hearted longings that would magically re-write the past or alter the future.
I’m talking about the things we need from God, things that only God can provide. What do we need? We need to be pruned like vines, so that the evil in us is tossed away, allowing the good to grow. We need to be engaged in work that encourages life and joy. We need to be forgiven when we fail to be the grapes, the vines, the workers God needs us to be.
But for some inexplicable reason, the gentle pruning, the loving guidance, the free forgiveness is not enough. It is easy to see the fault in others, to point out the foolishness of the gunman’s actions. But like the Pharisees who suddenly realized Jesus was talking about them, the truth is slow to dawn on us.
Though none of us is twisted enough to murder innocent strangers, the rogue vines, the revengeful tenants, the renegade assassin, are eerily like us. We seem to never be satisfied. There is an emptiness. A longing. Perhaps an entitlement that never goes away.
God’s cry of anguish over rogue vines echoes to us yet today. “What more was there to do for you that I have not already done?”
Sitting at a stop light last week, I had time to watch a patient well-groomed man coaxing an impatient well-groomed puppy to walk beside him. It wasn’t going well. The puppy plopped butt-down on the sidewalk, stubborn as a mule, while its kind owner tugged persistently on the leash, spoke clear commands, offered enticing treats. The pup refused. What more could the puppy want? What more could its owner do? As I drove away, I could see the test of wills continue in my rearview mirror. And the parallels between our lives.
I prefer to think of myself as a poorly-trained puppy rather than a vicious vine, a murderous grape picker or a cowardly assassin. But the impulse is the same.
God has given us everything—life, breath, purpose, love—and we want more. We want other.
So what will God do? What did God do?
In a world of unanswered questions, we know the answer to this one. God sent the only Son into our vineyard to gather all those who belong to him. To prune, to employ, to forgive. Because, for God, it’s always about us.
*“White Men Have Committed More Mass Shootings than Any Other Group,” Newsweek, Monday, October 2, 2017