The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 8, 2017
The Rev. Deacon Richard Limato, Deacon of St. Michael’s Church
The Jewish Talmud, a scholarly discourse on the Torah, speaks about Choni, the most pious person of his generation.
One day Choni was riding along on his donkey. A great exhaustion came over him. He got off his donkey to rest.
In a nearby field he saw an old man planting a carob tree.
Choni asked the man when his newly planted tree would bear fruit. He was told that this type of carob bears fruit only seventy years after it is first planted.
Choni wondered, “Do you intend to eat from this tree?”
The man answered. “Just as my ancestors saw to it that when I came into the world I found fruit trees that I could eat from, so too am I making sure that my descendants will have fruit trees available when they come into the world.”
“Each generation makes sure the following generations needs are met.
Fatigue overwhelmed Choni and he fell into a deep sleep next to the sapling.
Heaven made sure no one would notice him. No one would disturb him.
He slept for seventy years before awakening.
When he awoke, he saw that the tree planted on the day he fell asleep was now bearing fruit.
The story of Choni is a fictional story used to convey truths about life, the human condition.
Today’s Gospel represents Jesus’ use of this literary form.
He shares an allegory about life and the human condition in the context of his own time.
It has implications for us as well.
At first glance, this parable has all the elements that sometimes keep us glued to an entertaining movie, TV show or short story.
There’s a wealthy landowner who establishes a vineyard, who actually does build a wall, and a watchtower. He walks away from his business. He leaves trusting others to tend the vineyard on his behalf.
We have tenant farmers who toil, then claim the right to keep the fruit of their labors for themselves.
When the landowner sends his emissaries to gather what is rightfully his to own, there is mayhem and murder.
They even kill his son.
And the aggrieved religious leaders who hear the story respond with calls for more violence.
Swell the loud organ music; it’s quite the soap opera.
Some scholars interpret this allegory in the context of Jesus’s time.
The absentee landowner is God.
The vineyard is Israel. Jewish communities at the time identified a vineyard with the Temple, the center of their religious life and identity.
The religious leaders are the tenant farmers entrusted with the work of the vineyard.
They reject God’s prophets who are sent to them.
They reject the Kingdom of God.
And there is the foretelling of the killing of God’s son.
Allegories, the stories of Choni and the tenant farmers, have limitations when interpretation is limited to another time and place.
They are full of truth, and valuable understandings yet to be discovered.
Scripture invites us to consider Jesus’s teaching in the context of our own time and place.
As I see it, we are the tenant farmers invited to work in the Lord’s vineyard.
And we are asked to consider our ethical choices as we do so.
We have been gifted, entrusted with the authority to tend the vineyard, to cultivate what God desires, justice, mercy and compassion in our world.
How we respond to the gift and use the authority is ours to decide.
Through our very own Baptism, a stewardship covenant was established.
Our covenant entrusts us to be guardians of life, stewards of all creation.
It then becomes essential for us to consider.
Are we tending to the gift in the way that Christ expects?
Are we fulfilling the terms of our covenant, our promise to be faithful stewards of the vineyard?
Are we nourishing life with love?
Are we ensuring that justice and mercy flourish, that we are sustaining creation with care?
When we turn to the news today, the response appears to be a grave one.
This past week we were shocked and saddened to hear the news of more unexplainable violence and loss of life.
We’ve hardly recovered from the recent loss of life in Charlottesville, both events unexplainable to those who value a civil society.
The mayhem of storms causing loss of life, destruction and hardship continually batters us.
We debate our interest and ability to respond to all the need.
Immigrants and refugees among us, most especially young adults and children, are riddled with anxiety as we debate DACA and their future in our country.
We engage in military posturing, we talk of our might in ways that seem to transcend our need for safety.
Tax reform is debated, yet we are not doing much to close the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
We seem indifferent to the issues that plaque a criminal justice system filled with inequities and accounts of injustice.
And we continue to grapple with issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, poverty and access to health care, fortifying ourselves into our polarized and inflexible corners, refusing to listen to others.
We have only to look to Christ to measure what we do.
Failing to tend the vineyard, failing to sustain the Kingdom of God, failing to share the “fruits of our labor” takes many forms today.
Our words, our actions, our hesitation to act, and our willingness to marginalize those we deem unworthy are not unlike the brutal actions taken by the tenant farmers.
Last Sunday Mother Kate offered this in her early morning sermon.
The question is not what Jesus would do?
The question is what would we do if we were tending the vineyard, yielding the stewardship like Jesus?
Jesus embraced the suffering.
Jesus welcomed the outcasts, the poor and the marginalized.
He taught us that these are the favored in God’s sight.
Jesus shared the fruits of the vineyard.
He promoted economic equality, radical love for all, justice where none was to be found, and God’s mercy when no one else would care to do so.
As we render decisions and judgments in our own conversations, in our social actions, immigration policy, tax reform, military posturing, relief efforts, human rights, health care access, and economic inequalities, let us measure it all against what God desires.
And ask the compelling questions raised by today’s parable.
How will justice, mercy and compassion guide our actions?
How will justice, mercy and compassion be extended to all?
How will we be careful stewards and sustainers of God’s creation?
Christ has given us the vineyard to tend and to sustain.
Our work begins.
Our work begins with our own willingness to share the fruits of the vineyard with all.
Our work continues with our willingness to crush the old stones of injustice, discrimination, inequality, and indifference.
And with Christ as our Cornerstone, we use the new stones of God’s compassion, mercy and justice to build an ethical society and to plant seeds for generations yet to come.
It’s quite possible that Jesus knew the story of Choni and the planting of a tree that bears fruit for later generations?
Today’s Gospel leaves us with much to consider.
When so many vexing problems seem impossible to confront, all is possible in God’s time.
When we plant new seeds, it might take time for them to bear fruit.
And when we tend the vineyard, plant and nurture our seeds today, we build God’s ethical kingdom, we sustain generations yet to come.
“In the name of the Lord of the Vineyard,
who calls us to stewardship,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”