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Seeing Our Work in Perspective: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 4, 2020
Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

I don’t know about you, but my mind is still in late August or early September; definitely not in the headspace of Thanksgiving, which is… well, it arrived up there. But subtly our gospel readings since we’ve returned to in-person gatherings have had this theme of harvest and labour.

Last week Jesus asked his hearers how they would respond when asked to go do some work in the vineyard, using a story about two children and their different reactions.

A week earlier Jesus asked his hearers how committed they are to the agreed-upon work, even knowing that they might be working alongside those with whom there is some tension. Tension because the landowner treats equally well the people called to work at daybreak, and those called at suppertime.

And on our first day back, there were no fields mentioned, but a king and his workforce; and so some sort of compound, likely with fields and vineyards. And this king forgives the massive lifetime’s worth of debt of one slave, yet that same slave goes off and refuses to forgive a friend’s tiny debt.

The reading today is set in harvest time, and as prophets had done before, Jesus depicts the community of the people of Israel as a vineyard. Isaiah said earlier that God had put everything in place to allow for good things to grow. But the story that Jesus tells describes the reality differently. And we would do well to recall that Jesus is picking up on a Jewish self-critique, in the tradition of Isaiah. It need not be a quick and easy assertion that everything Jewish is bad and everything ‘we’ do is good. As it’s been said before, it’s a very human tendency to compare ‘our’ best to our neighbour’s worst. (Paul, even the Paul who sees his “previous life” as “loss,” will, in other places, insist on the unique, valid, and everlasting covenant between God and the Jewish people.)

This parable, like the others of recent weeks, is told at an incredibly tense moment in Jesus’ life, following his entry into Jerusalem. Jesus knows that time is short, and this grassroots rural movement that raised up the outcasts of society was coming face to face with the the religious elites of the day. And Jesus’s parables take aim at those who feel right, and comfortable.

And that could be any of us. It can be us whenever we get caught up in the work before us. We get caught up in it because we might love it. Because it gives us a sense of purpose and identity. Because it’s hard work, and we zero in on the grapes and vines and soil right in front of us. And as understandable as that might be, there’s a risk when we forget that we’re part of a vast landscape: with other grapes, other vines, other workers, and undergirding all of this, a landowner and that landowner’s overarching purpose of which we’re a part. Isaiah takes aim at the people who forgot that the purpose was justice. Paul takes aim at the ‘circumcision party’ that thought that our religious education and our observance of rituals were a substitute for our trust in God’s action. And Jesus takes aim at the leaders that set up and were part of systems that were designed to help mediate between people and God, but — as is so often the case with our desire for efficiency — the systems end up getting in the way, and more than that, they demand our attention, and loyalty. We forget about the landowner. We forget about the meaning and importance of the work. We forget about people.

I think it’s that tendency to which Paul takes exception, when he says: “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

The parable today reminds us that we’ve been called into service of a landowner that has entrusted a sacred duty to us to be faithful to the message that out of the horrors of Friday comes surprising new life on Sunday. When we use our time and God-given talents to participate in this work, we do so in a spirit of thanksgiving to the God who is the source of all good things, and the landowner to whom we’re accountable. But when we become the focus, the work suffers, the people suffer, and our spirits suffer.

But Jesus can bring us back to our mission when we recall his words: “come to me all you who are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you” and “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And like Paul we can put our own ‘stuff’ in perspective, and “[forget] what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead [and] press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call.” We’ve each been called, believe it or not. And there’s life in that, when we remember what counts as loss, what counts as gain. Differentiating God’s mission and our baggage.

Thanks be to God.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter