October 8, 2017 – 18th Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46; St. Francis
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Jesus told the parable we heard in this morning’s lesson from Matthew during the few days leading up to his death – Holy Week. He is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, in the hearing of the religious authorities. These men are already angry with Jesus because he has been challenging them. They want to trap him into admitting to blasphemy. In a matter of days they will succeed in their plot against Jesus.
The parable Jesus told is an allegory based on the passage from the prophet Isaiah that we heard today. The Jewish religious authorities were schooled in the law and the prophets, and they would have understood the reference. In the story from Isaiah God planted a vineyard, expecting the vineyard to yield grapes, but it yielded wild or sour grapes, so God let the vineyard be destroyed. The message Isaiah gave was this: God made a covenant with the people of Israel and the people did not respond by living with justice and righteousness and obedience to the commandments of God. Therefore, because they had failed to live up to their part of the covenant, they would be destroyed by other nations.
We may think God sounds angry and harsh here, but that is not the sense of the passage from Isaiah. It begins, “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning this vineyard.” And God pleads with the very people who have broken the covenant: “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”
In his parable Jesus expands on Isaiah’s allegory. God is the landowner. The vineyard is Israel. The tenants are the Jewish leaders. The slaves are the prophets. The son is Jesus. So let’s “translate” the parable. God established Israel as God’s people and gave the people blessings of many kinds. God left the leadership of the people in the hands of the religious leaders, who were to teach and guide the people in God’s ways. God sent the prophets to remind the people about God’s covenant and commandments. But the religious leaders rejected the prophets and treated them badly. Finally, God sent God’s son, Jesus, to speak as a prophet to the people, hoping that he would be respected. But the religious leaders rejected and killed the son. This synopsis sounds very much like the words of the Eucharistic prayers in which we recall the story of our faith each week.
Jesus then makes another reference to the Hebrew Bible, to Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” This refers to how God often “turns things upside down.” In the words of Mary in the Magnificat: “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Matthew is making it clear that Jesus, though rejected and killed, will be the leader of God’s new people, those who recognize Jesus as God’s son, follow his teaching and his way of life, and produce “the fruits of the kingdom.”
That’s where we fit in. God has offered us love and the opportunity to respond to God’s love with lives of faithfulness. God has given us Jesus, to be our teacher, our prophet, our healer, our risen Lord and savior. We have the Law of Moses in the Ten Commandments, and we have the Summary of the Law, found in the Old Testament and quoted by Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.” We have the witness of the church and the holy people of God over two thousand years. We have our church today, and we have each other. Is there anything more that God can give us? Shall we not live as God would have us live?
Today we honor St. Francis of Assisi. He was a disciple of Jesus whose life is a wonderful example of humility; of compassion; of love for God, the poor, the sick, and all God’s creatures; and of joy.
Francis’ father was a wealthy merchant in 12th century Italy. Until the age of 24 Francis enjoyed his privileged position. He was extravagant, well-dressed, fun-loving, and carefree. Then his heart was touched by the suffering of beggars and lepers and of Christ on the cross. Gradually Francis changed. He spent less time with his friends and more time tending lepers. He worked to rebuild a church that was in disrepair. Finally, he renounced wealth and possessions. He became a beggar and devoted himself to serving the poor and preaching the gospel. Many men and women followed Francis’ example of humble service.
St. Francis is well known for his special relationship with animals. He is reported to have preached to the birds, and so he is often depicted holding a bird. It is also reported that St. Francis wanted everyone who owned an ox or an ass to give them a good feed on Christmas Day out of reverence for the presence of an ox and an ass at the manger in which the infant Jesus slept. Because of his remarkable reverence for God’s creatures many churches honor St. Francis by blessing animals on his feast day, as we will do today.
St. Francis’ joy in God’s creation is the part of his spirituality that is popularly emphasized. Equally important – perhaps more important – was St. Francis’ spirituality of the cross. St. Francis meditated on the passion of Christ and had a deep perception of its importance. He believed that discipleship meant a willingness to suffer with and for Christ. Two years before his death St. Francis was at Mount La Verna. He had a vision of an angel and an understanding that he was to be transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified. St. Francis received the stigmata – the marks of the Lord’s wounds – in his hands and feet and side. In his last years St. Francis suffered from blindness and disease, yet never lost his joy. This is one of the mysteries of Christian discipleship, that just as Christ crucified and Christ resurrected are both true and real, in our lives both suffering and joy exist together. What St. Francis knew and what countless other deeply spiritual people know is that resurrection ultimately triumphs over death and joy over suffering. What St. Francis knew and what countless other deeply spiritual people know is that while we are among our suffering brothers and sisters, we may find joy in helping to relieve their suffering, by sharing the many blessings God has given us.
St. Francis believed that the Christian life was to be a life of prayer. Please turn to page 833 in The Book of Common Prayer. In honor of St. Francis let us pray together the prayer attributed to him.