Lectionary 27A (October 8, 2017)

A blighted crop means the profit/loss statement is not going to look good this year. A perpetually blighted crop leads one to think that something is wrong with the seed, or the soil, or the vine. In the First Reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, describing a vineyard with a perpetually blighted crop, and explicating that the soil was fertile but everything else about the vineyard wasn’t. The vines produced what the NRSV calls “wild grapes,” but what are better understood as grapes rotted and ruined by disease. After years of this, God has had it, and plans to uproot the vineyard, which, in case you’re oblivious to metaphor, Isaiah tells us is Israel.

What are the rotted grapes, in this metaphor? Isaiah tells us, “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” English cannot convey the wordplay in Isaiah’s Hebrew. The difference between the Hebrew “justice” and “bloodshed” is one letter; so is the difference between “righteousness” and “cry of distress.” So close and yet so wrong. Good and evil travel the same trajectory. It’s as though Isaiah says, “God doesn’t fault you for trying (you tried to do good); God faults you for the evil you did while trying to do what was good.” If that’s no comfort to you, it’s not supposed to be. God is displeased with the bloodshed and distress.

This Old Testament poem influences how we read the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 21. Jesus tells a parable of a vineyard marked by bloodshed and distress. It’s a story of a rapidly escalating cycle of violence. The cycle has three steps. Step One is the creation of the vineyard. This is violence by polite, legal means. Economic reality in First Century Palestine is that a vineyard is a status symbol, with which an elite fought to maintain social standing. Anybody who’s anybody has a vineyard. You don’t plant a vineyard unless your subsistence is secured. You acquire the land, all of which is already spoken for, when someone defaults on a loan, or can’t pay their bills. You add to your social profits by seizing upon another’s economic losses. It’s all dignified and legitimate because the elite write the laws and the social codes that allow them to do it. It’s covert violence.

Step two is overt violence, and there is no question Jesus condemns it. Why else would he talk at such length about it? It’s a peasant revolt. The tenant farmers feel their subsistence threatened. First Century peasants don’t revolt to usher in some 19th or 20th Century workers’ paradise; they believe that paying the owner’s share of the produce will leave them without enough to survive. Their solution is to beat, to stone, and to kill. Jesus does not approve. Step three, Jesus poses as a question: What will the owner do? He will crush the revolt. More violence. We usually assume that in parables the earthly authority figure represents God, and usually that is not a given. Reading this parable alongside Isaiah 5, I am inclined to say God looked upon this vineyard, expecting justice, yet seeing bloodshed; righteousness, yet hearing cries of distress.

Human beings are like this. We are beautiful, created in the image of God; yet sinful, born of a fallen humanity. We are “one letter off,” like the wordplay in Isaiah. Luther writes in Thesis 3 of the Heidelberg Disputation, “Although the works of humans always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” I said last week Lutherans have a low opinion of humankind, or, I should say, humankind without Christ. For Lutherans, God is not just here to help us on those rare occasions when we fall short; God is everything good in us. Without God, we’re nothing. Luther concludes that same disputation, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to God.” In the Second Reading, Paul explains it in terms of a profit and loss statement.

Paul writes to the Philippians from a Roman military prison where his life is in danger. He writes to assure the Philippians that he is still alive, and he writes to thank the Philippians for their financial support. In today’s reading, he moves toward that thanks by introducing the image of a profit and loss statement. He lists his Hebrew credentials, which by society’s reckoning are gains, or profits. He is of the People of Israel: an ancient race with enough history that the Romans grant them special status. Tribe of Benjamin: home of the first King of Israel. Hebrew born of Hebrews: he was raised this way and he chooses it for himself. A Pharisee: expert interpreter of the Law, who treats all life like it is Temple service. A persecutor of the church, blameless under the Law: that’s a profit, that’s a gain. The Church is considered anti-cultural, dangerous to wholesome Roman values. Christians don’t sacrifice to Imperial gods, and thus foment chaos and bad morals. As a Hebrew and a Roman citizen, Paul profits by destroying Christians, halting the advance of this menace.

Having listed these profits, he says, “These are actually losses.” Why? Christ is better. Christ is better than any worldly profits or gains. “In fact,” he goes on, “I regard everything as loss because knowing Christ is true profit.” And, lest we think Paul is using this metaphor lightly, he says, “I consider all those things rubbish,” rubbish being a polite English word for the various human and animal byproducts one may find in a Philippian sewer. In other words, Paul means it. Paul’s life before was fine and upstanding and belongs in the sewer. He aimed for justice, but hit bloodshed; for righteousness, but hit cries of distress. Now, thanks to Christ, profit is loss, and loss is profit. What does Paul want? “I want to know Christ,” he tells his beloved Philippians. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” Christ means so much to Paul, that Paul wants to be poured out for the world as Christ was. Christ did it for Paul, and now Paul wants to do it for others.

As Christians, we confess with Paul that Christ has emptied himself for us, and thus revolutionized our profit/loss statements. What the world calls profit, we have come to see as loss; and what Christ gives to us and to the world is true profit.

When Christ revolutionizes the profit/loss statement, he breaks the Parable of the Tenants. Without Christ, we know how it will end—the violence will escalate to the owner crushing the revolt. What other course of action does he have? But Christ surpasses the worth of that vineyard. A ruling elite who knows Christ and considers all else rubbish is not going to seek a status symbol like a vineyard in the first place. That’d just be more rubbish. A money lender who knows Christ and considers all else rubbish is not going to force a peasant off the land and into tenant farming, because the money to be gained is just more rubbish. Tenant farmers who know Christ and consider all else rubbish aren’t going to beat, stone, and kill the collectors who come around—unless they kill them with kindness, shame them by being so polite to them—because they know whatever fleeting gains they win are just more rubbish. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine this. Neither Jesus nor Paul said it would be easy. Changes of worldview usually aren’t. Yet the love of God creates that which is pleasing to God, and revolutionizes our profit/loss statements so that we want to serve.

Christ’s pouring out of himself on the cross changes that parable, and it changes us. Our own efforts are always just one letter off: we aim for justice, but hit bloodshed; for righteousness, but hit cries of distress. We might not persecute anyone like Paul once did, but our own work is not pretty. Christ revolutionizes our profit/loss statements. So, we see Christ as profit, and everything else as loss. We count it as profit that through us Christ provided forty or so homeless men a safe, cool place to sleep this summer. We count it as profit that through us, Christ filled up our available classroom space with GED and ESL classes. We count it as profit that through us Christ gave thousands from our Mission Endowment Fund to God’s work around the region. We count it as profit that though us Christ is wearing out the carpets with yoga and Zumba. We count it as profit that through us Christ is going through so much bread and wine. We count it as profit that through us Christ is giving our pipe organ more wear and tear. We count it as profit that through us Christ spends his evenings at City Hall standing up for the vulnerable. We count it as profit that we get to know Christ and to welcome others to know him. The profit/loss statement looks amazing, because of Christ.