The Prophet Maker and the Prophet Takers

A sermon based on Matthew 21:33-46 (Inclusive Bible)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 8, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

It’s probably not readily apparent, but our Lectionary text this morning has Jesus catching the religious elite he is speaking to in a web of violence of their own making. They are acting unloving, unjust, unkind and ungodly. They are violently rejecting God’s messages and messengers. Then they unwitting claim that under their way of thinking those who so reject God’s messengers should suffer a miserable death.

God’s messengers are prophets. Church people hear a lot about prophets. Prophets are … well, here let me read the definition of a prophet from my desktop Dictionary of Theological Terms: “One who speaks on behalf of God to God’s people . . .” How can we tell when one speaks on behalf of God? Well we know that God is love. We know that God wants us to seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. So prophets are the ones speaking about love, justice and kindness as they humbly walk with God.

We may not have thought of it in these terms but we have heard prophetic voices and messages this week speaking to us out of the awful senseless violence inflicted on God’s people with terrible mass assault killing machines in the hands of a mad . . . man. In the Las Vegas tragedy and the related heroics and sorrow and commentary and sights and sounds God can be heard directly crying out in our hearts and minds, in sorrow and anguish, and in our desires for the well being of the victims and their families and also for ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors and those we do not know.

And there are voices speaking on behalf of God. Prophetic voices call out. The prophets are NOT the religious elite claiming God allowed the shooting because of protests against the elite’s political views or the people in power they support. The prophets are NOT the religious elite warning us this happened because of the sins of groups they want to stifle or oppress. The prophets are only the ones speaking about love– desiring everyone’s well being. The prophets are the ones speaking about justice– desiring the safety we are all due in public places. The prophets are the ones speaking about kindness – desiring care for people and change of our less that caring status quo to doing something to care. The prophets are the ones walking humbly enough with God to admit we are doing things wrong and must address them to end the awful senseless violence being inflicted with terrible mass assault killing machines in the hands of mad . . . men.

We must not reject the prophets from God speaking to us this week . . . or ever. As Vice President Pence said last night “unite din our resolve to end such evil.” So let us listen for prophetic words. They always, always, humbly aim us toward love, justice and kindness.

Religious people and religious leaders are especially are charged in the Bible with taking care of God’s people and hearing and acting on prophetic words, of humbly aiming us toward love , justice and kindness. One of the greatest ironies in the Bible –and in history and in modern religion in America– is that religious elites with power, and working for the powerful, constantly reject the ones who speak on behalf of God to God’s people.

That’s the message in Jesus’ story. That’s the real Biblical warning to heed.Prophets bring the word of God that the elites on the side of earthly power rarely want to hear. They don’t want to hear it and lead people toward it because love, justice and kindness threaten their power or the power they have allegiance to, it threatens the status quo.

The usual reaction to unsettling prophetic voices and prophets is to lash out at them. In Jesus’ allegory the lashing out escalates from rejection to beatings to killing to torturous stoning. The religious elites are brutal to God’s representatives, those with prophetic messages. This is what Jesus is addressing. And it’s a follow up to the verses (31-32) immediately prior to our lesson, where Jesus references John the Baptist in a pretty harsh condemnation of the elite.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (That’s from the NRSV).

John the Baptist was executed by Herod a Rome backed religious elite.

And Jesus makes it even clearer that it’s wrong to reject prophets is the message he wants understood . . . at least Matthew’s Jesus . . . because a couple chapters after our Lesson Jesus says in the NRSV

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

So while the Lectionary selection has Jesus’ lesson stand alone, it is very important that we understand the context that Matthew has Jesus teach it in. It is an allegory about the religious elite who are of the very ilk who persecute, kill, reject and oppress prophets those who represent God’s voice, those who speak on behalf of God to God’s people.

In fact our reading ends by noting that the religious elite “sought to arrest [Jesus], they feared the crowds, who regarded Jesus as a prophet.” That tells us Jesus was known before his crucifixion as a prophet, and all of these stories are about what happens to prophets, God’s representatives, God’s messengers . . . they are rejected by the religious elite . . . the very type of people Jesus is talking to.

It is also important for us to know that in the Gospel of Matthew’s telling Jesus has literally returned to the scene of a crime in the eyes of Rome’s appointed elite. See the day before in the very same Temple where Jesus is telling this allegory, Jesus staged his own prophetic protest in the Temple. In same chapter of Matthew, Chapter 21, twenty verses earlier (12-13) we are told,

Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers.’”

In today’s lesson, Jesus is back in the Temple. And the Temple elite, Rome’s appointed leaders in the religious community, are more than a bit miffed and they are challenging him and he’s more than up to challenging them back – and just in case anyone misses his harsh allegory is about the religious elite, Matthew points out at the end the reading that “they realized he [Jesus] was speaking about them.”

So all this makes it pretty clear what meaning we are to draw from today’s reading, the symbolism’s apparent. The landowner who plants the vineyard is the Creator . . . God. The vineyard is creation, more specifically in this situation it represents the Promised Land, Israel . . . including the Temple. The vineyard is that which God gives the tenants stewardship over. The tenants are the religious elite, the powerful in Judaism who are supposed to be the overseers of the law, Torah, and who are most especially supposed to be overseers of the well being of God’s people. The representatives that God sends to these tenants symbolize the prophets that we hear about in the Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament, but Jesus’ words suggest the prophets include John the Baptist and himself.

The tenants mistreat, expel or kill God’s representatives. Including as we heard, God’s own Son. That is of course Jesus, and he too is killed by the tenants, portending what the religious elite and Pontius Pilate later do with the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. (141) So the religious elite, the people God has provided with power and responsibilities as stewards of creation, the Promised Land and the Temple, reject the prophets, God’s representatives and God’s messages – and by extension God. And they reject God’s son Jesus who is the Christ, and so, God’s own self incarnate is rejected. That’s the allegory, the lesson. Religious elites violently rejecting those whom God sends.

So let me circle back. I started this sermon with a note about catching the religious elite in a web of their own weaving. Jesus points out that the tenants (the religious elite) are violent, that is their response to God’s agents. And after he tells the allegorical story about what they do to prophets, Jesus, he asks them how they think the landowner should respond: “They replied, ‘The owner will bring that wicked crowd to a horrible death and lease the vineyard out to others, who will see to it that there are grapes for the proprietor at the vintage time.’” Under the web they weave they are caught. Under their own argument they are wrongdoers and their wrongs warrant a miserable death. But it’s their web of violence, not God’s. It’s their argument for violence, not God’s. It’s the tenants, not the landowner, who commit violence, and its those religious elite not Jesus who would have their web of violence imposed on themselves.

That’s not God or Jesus’ way. Violence is not love, just or kind. The landowner’s in Jesus’ allegory does not commit violence. His repeated response is to send representatives. Those are the prophets who speak on God’s behalf to God’s people.
In Jesus’ famous lament that I read about Jerusalem killing and stoning the prophets, Jesus does not want a miserable death for the killers he wants to hold them and the rest of God’s people like a hen would hold her chicks beneath her wings. And in the lesson – even at the end time– the consequences of rejecting the prophets and the Son of God are not violent killing, but rather Jesus says:

“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.”

The reign of God, you see, is not the religious elites way of rejecting justice and kindness and love. Their way is not what brings heaven on earth and so obviously they do not bring it. Those who will replace them – in Jesus’ telling– are people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom– of heaven– they are the one’s who get heaven.

That makes perfect sense. And it offers promise. Promise that we will get heaven on earth on day.

The lesson ends with Jesus referring to Old Testament Hebrew saying. Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone . . . ?’” Then Matthew appears to have originally ended the lesson with verse 43 “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to people who will bear its fruit. It is thought by a number of scholars that verse 44 was added later. Which may explain why it has a violent a sound to it: “Those who fall on the stone will be dashed to pieces, and those on whom it falls will be smashed.” But even if the verse was originally in Matthew note that the violence is not of God’s doing, but as a consequence of the of doings of the religious elite. God does not, as the “prophet-rejecting religious” elite would, “put those wretches to a miserable death . . .” Rather, since they fail to bring heaven to earth they don’t experience it, except that they will be crushed . . . ground to powder is how some translations put it.

We can hear that metaphorically, as heaven coming down to earth destroying not the oppressors of prophets’ lives, but religious elites’ oppressive God rejecting ways. As I said that verse may have been added later . . . but still reading it as crushing oppression not people fits with the rest of the ending. As the Feasting on the Word, commentary points out

the vision of the kingdom of heaven Jesus describes with the lingering taint of violence taken out, resembles a world ordered by restorative justice . . . The transfer of stewardship to a “people that produces the fruit of the kingdom” is a restorative act, not a punitive act. Even the “cornerstone” that, oddly, will both trip and crush those who do not acknowledge it is not so much a divine projectile aimed at transgressors as simply a force of nature that exposes ethical clumsiness and signals moral gravity. (142-144)

Here’s the bottom line, WE, like John the Baptist, and the prophets, and Jesus are supposed to be God’s people hearing God’s call to produce fruit of the kingdom of God, that is, we are to bring heaven to earth. The fruit is justice. The fruit is love. The fruit is peace.

It’s not easy to sow and grow and reap and glean the fruits of justice, love and peace. But we are called to do so. May we listen to those who bring us messages on how to do it.

In light of the terrible tragedy in Las Vegas, it is important that we all hear the good news in this is:

the promise of Jesus’ teaching is that the stewardship over the earth will one day be taken away from those who don’t follow God’s call and it will be given to the people who do.

And the fruits of heaven will be produced. There will be peace on earth good will to all.