Dear Working Preacher,
I hate to say it, but I kind of think Matthew’s a punk.
Yeah, I know, you’re not supposed to say stuff like that. But I can’t help it. Just read today’s parable, for instance. It doesn’t all start here, of course, but in this week’s parable and in the weeks to come, we’re going to hear Matthew relate some pretty dark things. More than that, we’re going to hear Matthew use these things to try to win the argument he’s having with the Pharisees, the opponents of his day, as they each vie for the loyalty of Matthew’s community.
So, in this week’s parable, Jesus, according to Matthew, plays off the familiar imagery of the vineyard and the unfaithful managers of the vineyard to score some serious “gotcha” points. You know the story. A landowner plants a vineyard, digs the winepress, and does everything else you’d need to gather in a decent harvest. Then he leases it to tenants to run things while he goes away. When the harvest comes in, he sends his servants to collect his due, the share that is owed him by dint of his legal possession and industry. But they beat, stone, and even kill his servants. And when he sends more and the same thing happens. And so then he sends his son and the brutes kill him as well, hoping that if there’s no heir, and the landlord stays abroad until he dies, then maybe they’ll inherit the vineyard and keep the extra produce not just for one season but forever.
It’s seems like a kind of harebrained scheme to us, and we wonder how these stupid tenants ever think they’re going to get away with it. I mean, they’re kind of like the guys who run Ponzi schemes — don’t they realize that eventually it’s all going to unravel? Jesus seems to think so. Because after telling this parable, Jesus, at least according to Matthew, asks the killer question. “When he owner of the vineyard returns, what will he do to those tenants.” And then, right on cue, the Pharisees and the chief priests, like a couple of Costello’s to Jesus’ Abbot, fall for the trap hook, line, and sinker: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Which opens up the opportunity to explain the punch line of this dark joke until at last they get it…and then want to get him.
The parable and the larger part of the story it occupies fulfill several narrative and theological goals for Matthew. 1) It is part of the build-up of tension and suspense that has percolated throughout the gospel but now approaches its crescendo in the days between Jesus’ clearing out of the moneychangers and his betrayal and arrest. 2) It invites contemporaries of Matthew to see the Pharisees and chief priests in a less than flattering light and for this reason, perhaps, either to give this story of Jesus a second hearing or, if they’re already believers, to be encouraged in their decisions to follow Jesus. 3) It offers a theological explanation for why the Temple was destroyed and thereby once again confirms his community in their faith. I can sympathize with all of these reasons when Matthew’s community is in the minority, and is likely suffering hardship and perhaps persecution. We’re glimpsing an exchange from an unhappy, even bitter sibling rivalry, and while it’s uncomfortable we’ve seen enough of this kind of thing to at least make sense of it.
The trouble is, the fledgling Christian movement that Matthew represents went from underdog to darling-of-the-Empire in just a couple of centuries, and ever since passages like this have done some serious harm. Like a friend of mine recently said, “I think that Matthew’s point in this next week’s gospel was, ‘you are going to get yours, you nasty &*%$@#!.'” Moreover, as she told me, “This section of Matthew seems like week after week of self-vindication, and it has been USED that way over the centuries.”
So what’s an honest working preacher supposed to do? After all, this is Holy Scripture we’re talking about, and at the same time we realize that is has, indeed, been used that way for centuries.
I have no definite answer, but I will offer a suggestion: on this day, preach Matthew against Matthew. Or, better, preach Jesus — even the Jesus Matthew tells us about — against Matthew. What do I mean? Well, whatever is going on with Matthew, I still think he can’t quite help but preach the gospel. He just can’t help it. Take this parable, for instance. It’s kind of crazy, when you think about it. Why on earth do these guys think that they’re going to inherit the vineyard? Oh, I know, it’s a legal possibility. But it’s not like that landlord has disappeared. He’s sent servants, and more servants, and then his son. Who’s to say he doesn’t have another son, or more servants, or an army, or at least a gang of thugs at his disposal to take care of these tenants. They’re crazy, I’m tell you, just like Bernie Madoff and all the other dudes all the way back to Charles Ponzi, thinking they can get something for nothing. They’re crazy.
But they’re not half so crazy as this landowner! Think about it. First he sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants — and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a think? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
“What will the landlord do when he comes?” Jesus asks, and all they can imagine is violence: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” But notice — it’s not Jesus talking right now. They condemn themselves. That’s part of Matthew’s narrative brilliance, I suspect, to have his opponents voice their own condemnation. But it invites us to consider a different question: not what will that land owner do, but what did that land owner do. And to that question we have Jesus’ own answer: the landowner sent his son, Jesus, to treat with all of us who have hoarded God’s blessings for ourselves and not given God God’s own due. And when we killed him, God raised him the dead, and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God’s desperate, crazy love.
Oh, I know, Jesus goes on, at least according to Matthew, to finish this parable and accuse and condemn the Pharisees himself. But at this point, I think Matthew can’t help himself from witnesses to a God that is even more merciful than he can imagine. Jesus slips free of Matthew’s grasp for a moment, not simply to stand in judgment of Matthew and so many of us since who have used this story to validate our own causes — though he does that as well, I think — but even more to introduce us to the desperate, crazy love of God, love offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more to all who will receive it.
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. This is one of those weeks, I think, when with equal measures of patience and faithful pressure we can give witness to the God made most clear to us in Jesus.
So maybe Matthew’s not a punk. Or, at least, no more of a punk than I am, always ready to twist the gospel to suit my own purposes. But thank God that Jesus — at least the Jesus Matthew witnesses to — is greater than our fear and insecurity and manages again and again to twist free in order that we might taste the mercy of God.
Thank you for your work to squeeze out the juice of the gospel, Working Preacher. Lord knows we need a drink.
Yours in Christ,