Acceptable to God
Bible Text: Matthew 21:33–46 Psalm 19 Exodus 20:1–3 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
“Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you.” Psalm 19:14
Some of you know my morning ritual is to walk the dogs at 5:30. Our route begins at the park closest to home, Oz Park. Even in the dark, it is an oasis in Lincoln Park with a flower garden nestled within called the Emerald City and dotted with life-sized statues of the main characters from The Wizard of Oz. The park celebrates its author and former local resident, Lyman Frank Baum.
Originally published as in 1900, it was turned into a screenplay to showcase Judy Garland’s talents and the introduction of Technicolor. The yellow brick road contrasting with Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the colors of Munchkinland inaugurated the era of color movies.
Most summers we have a showing in the park of the Wizard of Oz, with dozens of little girls in blue-gingham Dorothy costumes racing around as we sing along to the familiar tunes. I know some of you, like me, love the movie, but there are others, even in adult years, who are still terrified of the flying monkeys.
One day the Wall Street Journal burst my bubble with an editorial by law professor David Schoenbrod. He argues my beloved movie was written to criticize “the wizards of Washington as a bunch of charlatans running a scam on the little people of America.”
Schoenbrod claims the movie pokes at William Jennings Bryan’s campaign for the US Treasury to allow our currency to be backed with silver as well as gold. Supposedly the bleak Kansas landscape depicts the economic depression resulting from reliance upon the gold-standard. The Scarecrow symbolizes farmers who are not as stupid as others might think, while the Wicked Witch of the East embodies the eastern bankers and the name Oz is an abbreviation for the ounce, the measure of gold…the list goes on.
Some scholars claim the name Oz derives from Percy Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias, an ancient king of Kings.
Another interpretation of Oz likens it to a myth, akin to the age-old tale of Homer and a heroic journey of self-discovery. They argue the movie is a dream in which Dorothy discovers she must learn to think for herself (finding a brain for the Scarecrow), feel for herself (as heart for the Tin Man) and find courage (the Cowardly Lion), all to defeat wickedness.
Is The Wizard of Oz Dorothy’s homecoming, a discovery of the values of rural society, or that the real companions in her life are those who love her but whom she took for granted, or perhaps an affirmation her earthly roots gave her life meaning rather than some fantasy world? Or is it as Baum claims, a fairy tale?
It could be any or all of these, depending upon who tells the story and how and when it is received. Theologian John de Grunchy writes about mysteries in general and Oz in particular with simply: “The story does not tell us. It invites us to look into a mirror and see who we are, awakening our awareness of our self” and the way we live.
Jesus said that it took parables to subvert our unconscious worldview. Parables should make us a bit uncomfortable if we are really hearing them. When we fit them nicely into our business-as-usual world, or believe they have no bearing on our world, parables have not served their purpose. Theologian Barbara Reid claims, “A parable is to unsettle us and can only be unlocked from inside for us to see and hear correctly. If we read the parable for truth, the parable will expose truths in each of us.”
There is a dark quality to the parable we heard, almost a Lenten quality and undoubtedly, one of judgment. In Matthew’s gospel, it appears towards the end of Jesus’ ministry and is part of the escalating conflict with those who sought to stifle his message and ultimately leads to his arrest.
The day after Jesus upended the money-changers’ tables, he reenters the temple; and this time, the chief priests, the elders, and those with authority are all present and demanding answers: “By what authority are you doing these things?”
After telling them one vineyard parable, Jesus tells them this story, our text for today. The images are not veiled. Matthew calls it a parable, but it is really an allegory. The people and elements in the story have direct correlations to the lives of those in first century Palestine.
A landowner plants a vineyard and provides the residents with the means of production with a wine press and protection with fencing and watchtower. God is the landowner and the people of Israel are the vineyard. Steeped in Hebrew Scripture, the Pharisees would recognize this from writings of the prophet Isaiah in which Israel is “vineyard of the lord of hosts.”
The tenants assume responsibility to be good stewards of the vineyard, work with the given resources and ensure the fruits of their labor please the landowner. This is part of the bargain those in first century Palestine would understand.
Time and again, the landowner sends messengers and a son to the tenants to collect on the bargain. The servants sent by the landowner represent the prophets God has commissioned to restore the covenant with Israel. They are denied and killed.
The landowner’s son is also sent to call for the tenants to restore the bargain and he too is killed. With this story, Jesus foretells his own death.
This allegory unfolds in a manner to provoke the Pharisees and authorities into not just identifying with particular characters but to draw them into an ethical conflict in which they incriminate themselves.
The bait lures them in and they bite. In the story, time and again, the wicked tenants had killed the landowners’ servants and then the landowners’ son. Then Jesus asks, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?” you can imagine the Pharisees’ tempers boiling, necks bulging in anger, and they reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
In this allegory, the tenant farmers are the religious elite, those who are paid to be faithful to God and to care for the people.
Their visceral response reveals their plans and, more importantly, their corrupted understanding of God as vengeful and their denial of God.
In full disclosure, from research among other preachers, they usually avoid this parable. Yes, it is dark, but they avoid it because it has been maligned over the centuries by those who seek to justify anti-Semitism, equating the wicked tenants with the Jewish people. That would be a politically motivated interpretation that is not from the gospel.
Consistently, scholars reinforce the divisions Jesus draws in this parable are not between Jew and Gentile. Not in this parable or any others in Matthew. Jesus is drawing distinctions between those leaders who were denying the good news of Jesus’ ministry and the invitation to all people. To twist this parable to justify discrimination and abuse is self-serving and does more to indict them along with the leaders who heard Jesus’ parable the first time.
However dark this parable is, we should not avoid it or its tragic history, particularly as anti-Semitism in on the rise in Europe. Just yesterday an editorial by Lord Jonathan Sachs, emeritus chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, was published entitled Europe’s Scary New Anti-Semitism in which he describes tension and violence throughout Europe. Rabbi Sachs cautions “Anti-Semitism was always and only obliquely about Jews. They were its victims but not its cause. The politics of hate that begins with Jews never end with Jews. It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler and Stalin. It is hardly Jews alone who are suffering today under their successors, the radical Islamists.”
In graduate school, one of my colleagues quoted a beloved pastor as saying something like, “the Bible is not a weapon for you to hit someone else with. The Bible was created by God to open your heart to know God’s love.” This parable is not about anti-Semitism.
The revised common lectionary serves another vital purpose as we read scripture. One story helps illuminate another and the long arc conveys the message. Let’s go back.
To unlock this parable, hear again our Call to Worship, words from scripture recited through the ages from the book of Exodus, “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
The first commandment is the hardest to follow and is the downfall in this allegorical vineyard.
The god the Pharisees worshipped was one they had diminished to a small god under their control; a small god who was satisfied by their corrupt interpretation of laws and a god small enough to condone their neglect of the people whom they were called to care for.
The Pharisees may have claimed a monotheistic religion, but their behavior can be described as henotheistic, claiming one god among many gods.
They worshiped a god on the Sabbath but tucked that god away every other day of the week, devoting themselves to another god of wealth by squeezing the last nickel at work, claiming their success in the vineyard, creating hierarchies to dominate others, and pamper themselves. Or the more benign but equally slippery denial of God is by looking aside at the marginalized who need healing, feeding and care.
They lived in a culture, built upon an economy, which celebrates all these smaller gods and promotes the satisfaction one might receive from worshipping temporal goods rather than the transcendent, heavenly and ethereal God who created, sustains and may redeem them.
Perhaps they lost sight of God. Like a distant landlord, they might have thought God was too remote and would not notice. They were so caught up in themselves; they forgot to take notice of God.
Our lectionary for today prescribes Psalm 19, which C. S. Lewis calls “the greatest poem in our Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”
Haydn must have agreed with the composition of his masterpiece we just heard, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” We might hear the beauty of his masterpiece, but it will never fully convey all of what heaven and earth sing on a daily basis of God’s greatness. “The heavens are telling… the firmament proclaims… Day to day pours forth speech…”
And then the astonishing, culture-overturning image of the law is given to us as a gift from God: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” Gold is what investors rush to in times of crisis; gold is what we believe will purchase the good life and security. But the Law is even better. As Tolkien’s wise old Gandalf would remind us, “All that glitters is not gold.”
The psalter moves from praising God, rejoicing in the law and then closes with what is known as the preachers’ prayer, “may the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in they sight.” This prayer is not to be limited to preachers or just a Sabbath. We all are to pray this to guide our decisions in how to live, acknowledging God’s sovereignty and laws.
When we read this dark parable among all the teachings, hymns and stories of scripture, like the dark glass it sits next to those bright or clear in our stained glass windows, we can see and learn the long narrative in which God comes to us with grace.
The landowner did not, as the Pharisee thought, come to kill those who had broken their promises or rejected the servants and son. God’s son came for everyone, suffered and died, but was raised to new life, calling for them and us to live a life devoted to and accepted by God.
Where do we find ourselves in this modern day allegory? I can relate to the paid religious leaders, easily slipping into my interpretation of the laws, losing sight of how wide, how inclusive God can be. Forgetting to honor and care for all people as God calls.
Perhaps I can also find myself in the place of the new tenants, who cares for the vineyard in a new covenant, honoring all people, not choosing to live for common culture but for the promises made real in Christ.
The son rejected goes on to do something amazing. Jesus sets a table and invites us to be at one with him in a simple meal as he did centuries ago and also today. “Do this in remembrance” is a command we receive in the three synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters with great emphasis on the “do this.” Bless, break and share bread. Pour out a cup from the vineyard and share it. Remember with your whole body.
Communion is about reorienting ourselves as recipients of God’s grace through Christ, placing God again at the center of our lives. We may drift to believe, as the Pharisees, that God is distant, uninvolved in our lives, yet we are invited to act and in our physical act, for our body and our mind, to remember Jesus’ love poured out for us. Find yourself and your salvation in God through Christ. Amen.
 David Schoenbrod. “The Yellow Brick Beltway,” The Wall Street Journal. (Dow Jones Company, 11/27/1998. Page A10)  John de Grunchy. Led Into Mystery: Faith Seeking Answers in Life and Death. (London: SCM Press, 2013 42)  Barbara Reid. Parables for Preachers. (Collegeville, MD: Liturgical Press. 114)  Jonathan Sachs. Europe’s Scary New Anti-Semitism. (The Dow Jones Publishing Co.: The Wall Street Journal. October 4-5, 2014) C3. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1986), 63.