As we come to the end of the Gospel of Matthew that has been our main Gospel during Pentecost, we are forced more and more into an encounter with Jesus. The passage today lays things out quite plainly. The story of the vineyard, based on an old song which we heard part of in the Isaiah passage, has become an allegory in which things stand for something else. The vineyard has become God's people; the vine-dressers are the religious leaders; the son and heir is the Gospel message of Jesus; the murder his rejection; the threat that the kingdom of God will be given to others bringing forth fruits of the Kingdom, an indictment against the church.
The challenge in hearing this passage is to decide where we would place ourselves in the story. With whom would we identify most closely? Jesus could be bringing good news or bad, depending on your point of view! If you are a loyal "person in the pew" hearing this story, you could feel troubled, especially if your church seems to be in decline. You could wonder, is God is really working more with other churches than with mine? Are the things we value the wrong things to be concerned about?
If you are a member of the clergy, this parable could bring doubts to your mind. What have you done to deny the Gospel, and how have you avoided those who perhaps needed the Good News of Jesus most, but somehow didn't quite fit in?
Perhaps you can identify with Jesus being the rejected heir. Have you ever been told you're not needed anymore? Have you been ignored or left out of a group you really wanted to be a part of? Then you have felt the kind of rejection Jesus experienced when he came to his own people and they spurned him.
And today everyone is awed by the rapid growth of the church in others parts of the world. While developed nations in the West seem to be losing strength in the established churches, thousands of converts come to Christ every day in Africa. Is God really giving the Kingdom to others because our Western culture in its race to wealth and success is unable to embrace it anymore? Things are, however, different from they way they were in Jesus' time.
Despite what we would like to believe, the church has very little influence in our culture today. Religion is a private matter, and the Supreme Court, which as late as fifty years ago declared this country a Christian nation in a decision, would no longer do so.
We are people called to proclaim Good News, to tell the story of Jesus and introduce others to him. That is primarily done by the way in which we live, the ethics we have, and the moral behavior we demonstrate.
Our difficulty may be that we're still trying to be the faith of the culture; we aren't-and the sooner we accept that the freer we will be. Church is much less a social custom than it was just a few decades ago. People who become Christians today are more likely to do so out of conviction than custom.
And this is not happening only in poor parts of the world. An Anglican Church in central London has new people coming each week to classes about basic Christianity, and many of them join the church as a result. New members include many young professionals who seek stability and a spiritual foundation for living.
A very traditional church in rural New Jersey recently added a third service to its Sunday schedule because the main mid-morning service was full. A rural church in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri has people coming from as far as 50 miles to Sunday services, and often has new faces on Sunday. Another in a rural Texas community has grown so much that it has built a new building for worship, tripling its sanctuary space for worship.
While there are individual reasons why each of these churches is growing, the point is that they are; and they are located in very different parts of the Western world. People are hearing the Gospel, it is transforming their lives, and they are inviting others to join them.
Now let's return briefly to the parable of the wicked vine-dressers: If they stand for religious leaders, they stand for those who would benefit their own circumstances from religion. They would be people who seek power, wealth, and recognition through the church. They would be men and women who have the answer to every question, never encouraging the faithful to struggle with Jesus for their own understanding. They would be leaders who want to take over others' lives and tell them how they should live. There are plenty of examples in modern culture, from cult leaders to corrupt evangelists-and some church officials.
The point Jesus is making in this parable, however, applies to everyone. We are entrusted with the Gospel, and whenever we forsake the Gospel it will be given to others to share.
The honesty and integrity of our faith is based not so much on whether we do or do not do certain moral behaviors, but whether we have shared the Good News with others. The judgment of Jesus will be based on the fruits of our faith, not on our personal purity.
A young single woman who had a job as a waitress was always bringing friends to church on Sunday. Occasionally they came back and several became members of the congregation. She was wealthy only in that she had a lot of friends where she worked, and she brought them to the place that sustained her spiritually. When Sue died the church was packed with her friends. The celebrant at her funeral connected her goodness to her bringing others to the faith. Someone once asked her, "Sue, how do you do it; you make it seem so simple?" "I don't know", she replied. "I just ask them and they come. I know I need to be here, and I think my friends do too."
If the Gospel were really transforming your life, wouldn't you want to offer it to everyone else? Sue did. And she is one of the ways Jesus tends the vineyard. By your baptism you are a vine-dresser as well. Jesus is asking you to apply the Good News in your life so that others will see it; and Jesus asks you to share it with those whom he has given you as friends.