For October 5, 2014: Proper 22, Year A

The Reading                                                                           Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins in Isaiah’s voice as a love song and praise of a promising vineyard. At verse 3, the voice is the Lord’s: the carefully tended vineyard produces nothing worthwhile, and so it is to be destroyed. The last verse returns to Isaiah’s voice: the bad vineyard is God’s people, producing bloodshed rather than justice.

The Response                                     Psalm 80:7-14

Rather like Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14 begins with a promising planting by the Lord of hosts. The vine out of Egypt is Israel, flourishing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River—but now its grapes are plucked by all comers and its leaves are animal fodder, unless the Lord turns and saves it.

The Epistle                                                            Philippians 3:4b-14

In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul is more than usually forthright: though the Jews are God’s chosen people and he the best Jew by birth and accomplishment, all of that is a steaming pile of skubalon (‘rubbish’ is a very polite translation) when it comes to earning righteousness and (better yet!) knowing Jesus.

The Gospel                                                                 Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:33-46 tells of another lovingly built vineyard; this time it is not the vine or the fruit that is faulty, but tenants who choose not to uphold their end of a bargain and use violence to keep what is not theirs. This is much less a story to shame “the Jews” than it is a warning against self-righteousness.

Further thoughts

It is easy and tempting to take readings like those for Proper 22 as indictments of the wickedness of the Jews as a whole. It is even more tempting to do so in challenging times, and the history of the world makes all too plain that Church and people have succumbed to that temptation with shocking regularity in the past two millennia.

But that misses the point of all the readings. First, the vineyard owners devoted all that effort to their respective vineyards precisely because they had reason to expect the best results from land and vines: that is, if anyone is producing good fruit of the Spirit, it will surely be the people who are and have been in covenant with the Lord. Second, up until the advent of modern democracy it was understood that a nation is no better than its leaders: the rant in Isaiah is aimed not at ordinary Jews but rather at the religious and governmental authorities that have led them astray. Similarly, with the parable of the vineyard Jesus targets the group of those who by virtue of more rigorous upbringing, deeper training in Torah, and higher spiritual discipline should have been better placed than anyone else to recognize who Jesus really is and what is at stake—but did not.

Paul makes the point more personal. The list of attributes with which Philippians 3:4b-14 opens is there to establish him as very much a Jew—in fact, the cream of the crop of Judaism, and perhaps the very most observant Jew ever to walk the earth. But even all that righteousness got him absolutely nowhere without the overflowing grace of God.

Having said all this, however, he is determined to let his life be his thanks by bearing the best possible fruit for all peoples in the kingdom of God. What if you and I were to go and do likewise?

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