Connection, Opportunity and Purpose (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Every time I read the parable in today’s Gospel reading, I can’t help but wonder, “what were these people thinking?!” Their actions were outrageous and extreme.  But beyond that, they made no sense. How could they possibly have thought that they could gain anything for themselves by beating up and killing the slaves and son of the landowner?

But maybe part of the point of this parable is that they weren’t thinking. These weren’t people who had a well thought out plan. They didn’t seem to have any direction in their lives. And, indeed, they had lost sight and focus of what they were supposed to be about. They weren’t thinking, they were just reacting.

And they reacted from a sense of isolation, and burden and routine, instead of from a sense of connection, opportunity and purpose.

Jesus sets up this parable using some images which would have been familiar to his first hearers. He describes a vineyard, which, as in our first reading, was often a biblical symbol for Israel. Into this vineyard, the owner of the vineyard (God) calls tenants – the symbol of his people, who are supposed to be in charge of taking care of this vineyard and making it function properly. But as the months and years go on, the people in the vineyard lose focus and vision because they get caught up in a sense of:

  • isolation – they don’t see the landowner, and they start to feel as though the landowner isn’t still involved and connected to the project … in fact, they even seem to get so caught up in this sense of isolation, that they begin to think the isolation is good, and they get freaked out when representatives of the landowner arrive to keep the connection going … (they don’t even look for the help that a landowner would be responsible for and clearly would give …)
  • burden – when you feel like you’re all alone, and it’s all up to you, you often start feeling this overwhelming sense that you have to take care of everything. And when that happens, you usually get blind to the opportunities, promise and potential that may be right in front of you. And that’s what happens with these tenants – they aren’t day laborers, they have a permanent job and a significant stake in what happens in the vineyard. That means they have tremendous opportunity and possibilities, but they just can’t see it …
  • routine … often, when you’re feeling alone and burdened with the load of the world, you sometimes get through it by simply putting one foot in front of the other, and you forget what the routine is all about. It seems like these tenants in the vineyard were so into the routine of what they were doing and who was going to be in charge of doing it, that they missed the point that the whole operation was about “bearing fruit” …

This parable appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). That doesn’t always happen. Matthew specifically says it was told as criticism of the religious leadership of the time. But I think Jesus intended it to have meaning beyond that. In fact, anytime we read a parable and think, “oh yeah, this is Jesus telling THEM how bad THEY are”, we’re missing the point. This parable is directed to us as well.

And it’s especially the case in our world today, that it’s easy to fall into the same trap as these vineyard tenants. When we live in a society that’s more and more caught up in a sense of isolation and burden and routine, it can be easy to get sucked into the chaos and dysfunction that surrounds us. And indeed, the sense of isolation and burden so many people feel personally is one of the most serious problems mental health professionals tell us we face today. 

Yet Jesus tells this parable because there is another way. And the way that Jesus showed his disciples to live was exactly opposite from the way the tenants in the parable lived. And that way wasn’t centered on isolation and burden and routine, but rather on connection, opportunity and purpose. 

And in fact, while this parable may have partly been about criticizing the leadership, it was remembered because it stood in contrast to the ways of connection, opportunity and purpose that Jesus taught that God is giving us each day as we live in this vineyard we call “life.”

And while it’s often not easy, it’s important for us, as individuals and as a community, to struggle against isolation and burden and routine by actively focusing on:

  • connection instead of isolation – it’s one of the good things about our upcoming Fall Festival – it helps us build connection with others in the community around us; so much of the deterioration of our social life has come from isolation, often made worse during Covid. Rebuilding connection with others in the world around us is actually what Jesus did and what Jesus calls us to do, even when others don’t share our faith or beliefs; and it’s what makes people neighbors and friends, instead of adversaries…
  • opportunity instead of burden – over the last few years, we’ve all become much more aware of racial injustice, and the burden it’s been to individuals, groups and society at large. But honestly, some of the ways that national churches have proposed to address racial injustice often feel to me like just wallowing more in the burden. But a few months ago, Prince of Peace got an opportunity to host a Juneteenth celebration, because the historic site next door was under construction. It turned into a whole community event with multiple religious groups that filled the church! We had a great time, and we learned a lot about the history of slavery and racism in our country. But we also built connections with people in our community, and we continue to live into those relationships in other areas of our common life together. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you’re open to unexpected opportunities God puts before you, instead of just focusing on the burden…
  • purpose instead of routine – I get caught up in routines a lot. And routines have value. But the value of routine is in serving a purpose. Often, remembering and reflecting on the purpose keeps me from getting sucked into something being just “routine”. Yes, we gotta get the bulletins done – but the purpose is to ensure worship happens. Yes, we gotta make sure the building gets fixed and maintained – but the purpose is that we have a space where people can gather and grow in faith. Yes, we gotta have enough money to run things and pay people – but the purpose of what we’re funding is to continue to help people experience Jesus and grow in faith…

So much of the ugliness, chaos and dysfunction in our world today is caused by – or made worse by – people getting caught up in a sense of isolation, burden and routine. It happened in the vineyard in the parable. But it’s also happening now in the world around us. And it’s easy for us to get caught up in it, too.

But Jesus shows us that there is another way. It’s a way of living in the vineyard of life in the way God intended. And Jesus calls us into that way each day.

Jesus calls us to live faithfully in the vineyard by actively seeking and building connection with God and with others, instead of being content to live in isolation. Jesus calls us to live faithfully in the vineyard by looking for and taking advantage of new and different opportunities God gives us, instead of simply dwelling on the burdens of life. And most of all, Jesus calls us to live faithfully each day by remembering the purpose God gives us of bearing good fruit with our lives – the kind of fruit which gives praise to God and actual help to others – instead of simply letting ourselves get caught up in the routine.