‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ (Matthew 21: 42) ... a cross cut into a cornerstone in the main church in the Monastery of Vlatádon in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Sunday 8 October 2017,
The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 22).
11.30 a.m.: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Morning Prayer).
Readings: Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We have had a lot of visits to the vineyard in the Gospel readings for the past few weeks.
Two weeks ago [24 September 2017], we had the landowner who hired labourers at different times of the day to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16). And we saw how those who worked from early in the day were upset that those who were hired later in the day were still paid a full day’s pay.
Last week [1 October 2017], we had the father who asked his two sons to go to work in the vineyard (Matthew 21: 23-32). And we saw there how one son said no, but still went to work there, while another son said yes, and went off and did his own thing.
This morning [8 October 2017], we have another story set in the vineyard [Matthew 21: 33-46].
Grapes from Tommy and Valerie Downes were part of the decorations for the harvest service in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, on Friday evening [6 October 2017]. But I imagine we have very few vineyards in Ireland. Yet, I am sure, most of us can identify with the time and season in this morning’s Gospel reading.
It is harvest time, and it is time to collect the harvest. It should be a time for celebration, and for counting our blessings, as we celebrated the harvest on Friday evening.
But this morning’s Gospel reading challenges us to ask what if we think more about the field than the harvest, more about our personal gain and profit than the overall plans that God may have for us, more about short-term gains than about the long-term impact of our decisions, what if I think more about my individual needs than the good of wider society and community.
The setting of the parable is the estate of a wealthy landowner. This landowner does not live on the land, and does not work at planting or harvesting. The hard work is carried out by the hired labourers, who must turn over most of what they grow to the landowner. The landowner in the parallel parable in Luke 19 is a harsh, demanding man, reaping what he does not sow (see Luke 19: 20).
This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to collect the profits from their labour that sustain his life of ease in the cosmopolitan city where he lives.
In Saint Matthew’s version of parable, the farmers have had enough. The next time the landowner sends one of his servants to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. Forget how you have consistently read this parable for years. Those who listened to Christ telling this parable for the first time probably smiled at the demanding landlord getting a revolutionary response from the exploited tenants living on the edge and on the margins.
After all, Saint Paul tells us in the Pastoral Epistles: ‘for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The labourer deserves to be paid”.’ (I Timothy 5: 18)
Then the landowner sends another agent to collect the rent. Again, the farmers get together to send him away empty-handed. More cause for rejoicing among the first listeners.
Then the son of the landowner arrives. He has a different standing than the messengers. He is the son, perhaps the ‘beloved son,’ probably the only son. If he is the heir and the landowner had died, then he has inherited the estate himself. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers have been resisting years of what they feel has been exploitation, and now they rise up and kill the son.
But the twist in the story is that the landowner is not dead. He does exactly what we expect him to do in the circumstances. He wreaks revenge, slaughters the farmers and replaces them with others. He does this so he can return to his life of ease in the city, living on the income provided by the labour of others.
But no-one among those who hear this ending to the story for the first time would hardly regard it as comforting or good news.
The chief priests and the scribes who are listening the audience, and who come from the same social class as the rich landowner and his hirelings, must realise that they have just heard a scathing condemnation from Christ of how they exploit their fellow Jews.
The peasants or tenant farmers who hear the story are reminded that escalating the spiral of violence only results in more violence being visited upon them and their children.
Everyone who listens is challenged to rethink their prejudices and their judgmental values.
In this, the parable is a challenge to us today.
In what ways are we like the absentee landlord, dependent on others’ exploitation to support our lives of relative ease?
How much do we consume without knowing or caring about where our clothes, our coffee, our computers, our gadgets and toys come from, or about the cost to poor people and the environments in which they live?
In what ways are we like the agents, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right, to escalate interpersonal and international conflict in ways that will be visited upon generations to come?
And in what ways are we responding to Christ’s challenge to care for those the world disregards and to disregard the world’s standards of strength and honour?
As the American theologian and writer Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, Christ challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we discard when want newer and better ones, as we do for our own children.
Christ challenges us to bless and honour the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.
And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘There was a landlord who planted a vineyard’ ... grapes ripening on the vine in the Hedgehog in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 8 October 2017.
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
327, Christ is our corner stone (Processional)
231, My song is love unknown (Before the Intercessions)
493, Ye that know the Lord is gracious (Closing Hymn)