Monday, September 28, 2020

Produce the Produce (Reflections on Pentecost 18, Year A)

"The Wicked Tenants" Martin Van Valckenborch (Flemish, 16/17th cent.)

“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.” (Matthew 21: 43) 

Don’t you just love a good Biblical allegory? It’s pretty clear to me the story Jesus is telling in the assigned Gospel lesson for Pentecost 18, Year A (Matthew 21:33-46) is meant as an allegory. I wouldn’t go and take it too literally. If you do, you have to admit that the landowner in the story is one criminally stupid dufus. This guy ought to be prosecuted for reckless endangerment for sending his servants and his own son out to confront a colony of murderous lawbreakers. I mean, how dumb is this guy..? Didn’t he realize he was dealing with cutthroats when he sent out the first group of rent collectors?

But I digress. 

Verse 45 clearly tells us that Jesus is telling a symbolic tale. We usually interpret this story as meaning the Jewish leaders have failed to listen to the prophets and to Jesus, so God is taking the kingdom away from them and giving it to more deserving tenants—namely, us.

 The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it tends to make us feel all warm and special but doesn’t teach us anything. I think we in the Church would be wise to cast ourselves in the role of the wicked tenants and see this parable as a warning against our own tendency towrds complacency. When we hear this parable, we might want to ask ourselves what we in the Church are here to do. What is our “produce” supposed to be? Are we yielding good grapes or “wild grapes” as the prophet Isaiah describes in the First Lesson for this Sunday (Isaiah 5:1-7). 

Recently my wife showed me a video on facebook of a group of Christians protesting on the main street of our suburban South Jersey town. One guy wore a T-shirt which proclaimed “CORONAVIRUS IS GOD’S PUNISHMENT FOR FEMINISM.”[i] After I threw up a little in my mouth, I thought to myself, “Really, dude..?? With a dangerously changing climate, racial injustice, and economic catastrophe, this is where you’re going? For all God has given you, is this the produce—the rotten fruit of judgmental narrow-mindedness—that you’re giving back? If this is the fruit of your faith in God, no one wants to eat it.” 

Personally, I’ve always been pretty proud of the produce of our little urban congregation in Northeast Philly. Some of it is literally produce—veggies grown on our church lawn to feed the hungry. Some of it is shelter for the homeless. Some of it is a meal and companionship for the elderly homebound. Some of it is Christmastime encouragement for orphaned children. And a lot of it is community space so addicts and their families can get healed, seniors can fellowship together, and an immigrant community can worship in their own way. Pride, however, can easily morph into complacency. We’d do well to remember that it is only in looking outward—in producing a good crop for others—that we’ve survived as long as we have. 

Sunday, October 4th is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian monk who saw the Church getting sleepy and just going through the motions of Christianity. God called Francis to wake Christians up, to focus God’s people on care for the world God created and all the creatures in it, and to take up their responsibility to the poor and the infirm in their midst. I’ll admit it’s pretty hard to be socially active during a pandemic, but this virus can’t plague us forever. If any community of faith survives, the people of that community must know what they are surviving for. We are all called, like Saint Francis, to be renewers of the Church. God’s will will be done through us or in spite of us. If we are not zealous in our mission, the vineyard will be given to others. 

God bless, my friend. Keep safe.

[i] Seriously. He did. You can’t make this stuff up. You can read about the heretic idiot in the T-shirt by clicking here.

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