Proper 22-A Oct. 2, 2011
Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46
What if the Federal Reserve, or the U.S. Treasury, or the International Monetary Fund, ran by God’s rules? God cares a lot about the economy, if the Gospels are any measure of God’s interests and activities. So think about it: in this perplexing and violent parable – sometimes titled “the wicked husbandman” – Jesus is making the case that God cares about what we do with what we have been given. “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
What if God said that to the Federal Reserve? To the U.S. Treasury? To the lenders of sub-prime mortgages? To the bankers who have just decided to charge us for using the debit cards they told us to use? To those who spread the risk around and keep the profits to themselves?
“God’s economy” means the way God organizes God’s household, and so what are the rules for living in God’s household? This text reminds us that the penalty is pretty stiff for breaking them – “a miserable death” – so let’s look a little closer at what we have here. If God’s household is this vineyard, then one of the crisis points in the year is the time of harvest. The crop has ripened at once, and there is not a moment to lose to get in all in. Such a crisis is fraught with opportunity and peril. “The harvest is plentiful,” Matthew has Jesus say elsewhere, “but the laborers are few.”
The vineyard, in Biblical imagery, represents sacred land, God’s land, the symbolic place where the people live in obedience to God, to the Torah, the comprehensive way of life that marks what it is to be a Jew. The Torah, or the Law, begins with those 10 Commandments God gave to Moses, and you could say that for a faithful Jew – a faithful Jew like Jesus, or his disciple, Matthew – obedience to the Law is like living always in God’s sacred vineyard. Outside the vineyard, beyond the hedge, is the land of the unfaithful, the wicked, the disobedient, the alien.
But as we read this story, God is not pleased with those who were given the vineyard, who were given the great gift of this relationship with God, this great abundance of the goodness of life. They have squandered all these opportunities. The grapes are sour, wild, useless; all will be laid to waste, the laborers sent “to a miserable death.” All that privilege, all that power, all those riches – all will be taken away from the original tenants and given to those who know the rules of God’s economy, to people who will produce “the fruits of the kingdom.”
When we talk about the kingdom of God, or the reign of God, we know who is on top, who is King of kings, Lord of lords. But the more I think about it, the more I find the word “commonwealth” gets to the heart of what God has in mind for us. I used this word last week, to illustrate another parable of God’s economy. God has created the world, which the people of God hold in common. We are all stewards of this common wealth. The vineyard is an especially rich and blessed part of this commonwealth, and God sends some stewards in just to care for it. But they have neglected their duty to the common good. They have squandered the resources, or kept the wealth to themselves, rather than producing the fruits to be shared for the general welfare of all the people.
When we think of this world as a “kingdom,” our lines of responsibility or accountability only go up, to God. Or take the more modern image of “corporation,” where the managers are accountable only to the shareholders and their bottom line. But by using the word “commonwealth,” those ties of accountability and responsibility reach out to all the community, as well as up to the one who has created this wonderful world we all share.
Maybe this is where “secular” economists have gotten into trouble. They were hoarding this wealth as “theirs alone,” rather than understanding that the wealth belongs to God, and that the uses to which we put this wealth should be God’s uses, for God’s people, for the restoration of the vineyard, for the repair of God’s broken world.
So all this talk of the commonwealth, of God’s economy – these are challenging parables to hear. Jesus means business here, but is it a business model that we recognize? That we can live with?
Or is it one that we cannot live without?