A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

The Vineyard of the Lord

Saint Francis preaching to the birds outside of Bevagna by Master of St Francis (1260-1280)

Pentecost +18 2020
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 5:1–7, Psalm 80, Philippians 3:7-21, Matthew 21:33-44

The Gospel tells the story of the faithfulness of God in Christ coming to His unfaithful people to redeem them and restore them to the communion of His love. Even as He restores His people, He is restoring the nations to Himself. He is transforming this communion, this family into an image of His love on earth.

Jesus comes in word and deed. He teaches the wisdom of God, tells stories that reveal Kingdom of God, heals people physically even as He restores them to wholeness in community, and finally He pours out His life in a great exchange of love, giving us life in His death.

Last week and this week, we are reading an account of Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem. In the holiest city of all, the unfaithfulness of His people is on full display. The outer court of the Temple is filled with money changers. The chief priests and Pharisees challenge his every word and action. They plot to have him arrested and killed. Jesus tells stories that expose the hearts of these religious leaders. Even as He is confronting them in their unfaithfulness, He is seeking to redeem and restore them as well.

Today’s parable alludes to the ancient image of the vineyard as the people of God. In our Isaiah 5 lesson, we hear the song of the vineyard. It is a love song. The Beloved speaks of His love as a vineyard. Two images are intertwined: a young bride who is loved by her husband and a vineyard cared for by the Beloved. Isaiah begins by singing about how the Beloved has cared for His vineyard, but the vineyard is unfaithful. It produces bitter fruit. The bride has committed adultery. Israel’s flirtation with other gods is seen as adultery. At the same time, the idolatry of the people involves adulterous, immoral actions.

Adultery becomes a sign of the disintegration of the family, of the community. In their unfaithfulness to God, the people become unfaithful to one another. The powerful take advantage of the weak. Instead of justice, blood is flowing in the streets. The rest of Isaiah 5 exposes how the people called to be a nation of priests and kings have descended into corruption, violence, and deceivers. The people meant to people a light to the nations have descended further into darkness than their neighbors. The jaws of Sheol are open to swallow this people.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins with the vineyard image, but he alters it. The issue is not with bitter grapes. It is with those tenant farmers who are supposed to be cultivating the vineyard. They act as though it is their own vineyard. When the owners send his servants to collect the fruit, they beat them and kill them. Finally, when the son of the owner comes, they kill him and seek to take the vineyard as their own.

Jesus is both predicting His own death while also exposing the religious leaders of Israel. They have usurped their role as caring for the vineyard. They see the vineyard, the Israel of God as their own inheritance. As they seek to preserve Torah and Temple observance through their own understanding, they’ve reduced the promise of the kingdom for all the nations to glory for themselves and Israel alone. They no longer hear the Word of the Lord. They are blind and deaf and full of dead man’s bones.

Erasmo Leivi-Merikakos writes, “Their specific problem is their inability to see themselves as sinners in the first place or as in need of divine grace! They really do not experience the need for a savior because they consider themselves already justified and saved by their strict religious observances and moral efforts.”[1]

What a danger! To point out the flaws of others while being blind to their own. Lord save us from that blindness. In our age, people love pointing fingers and calling fault. May we recognize our own desperate need for mercy and grace. This kind of self-righteous blindness will ultimately harm and not heal. It causes the religious leaders in Israel to turn against the people whom God has sent with His word. This blindness causes them to plot against the son of God.

What a danger! That we would be so blind that we might fail to hear and see the servants of God in front of us. That we would be so blind that we might fail to care for the sheep around us. That we might curse what God has blessed. Jesus reiterates this inability to see when he quotes Psalm 118,

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
                   this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’? [2]

The stone has been overlooked, rejected, cast away as insufficient by the builders. Yet this same stone that they failed to see is actually marvelous in our eyes. This stone will integrate all the stones into a glorious structure. This stone that was cast off will unite Jew and Gentile in one holy Temple. Lord give us eyes to see your kingdom that we might not be blind to the glorious living stones all around us.

Today’s story is a tale of religious leaders and their inability to listen to the Lord and let go of their little kingdoms for the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a story of self-righteous unfaithfulness and blind greed for power and prestige, leading to abuse, rejection of God’s purposes, and blindness to His people and His ways.

As I thought about this story, I thought about one aspect of the St. Francis of Assisi’s conversion.

Today as the church observes the Feast of St. Francis, we celebrate the childlike ways he revealed the kingdom of God in His age. Here is a little detail relating to His conversion that might provoke and stir us afresh.

Francis grew up in a culture divide by wealth and status. There was old money, feudal aristocracy and new money made up of rich merchants, the church, and the secular government. These four made up the seats of power in the seat. Beneath them were the common people: craftsmen, day laborers, farmers, traders, herdsman, beggars, and outside the city were lepers.

I want to focus on his conversion and some changes that happened as a result. St. Francis describes his conversion in terms of being able to see the lepers. He writes in his testament,

“The Lord gave to me, Brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance; for when I was in sin it seemed to me very bitter to see lepers, and the Lord Himself led me amongst them and I showed mercy to them.3 And when I left them, that which had seemed to me bitter was changed for me into sweetness of body and soul. And afterwards I remained a little and I left the world.”[3]

Before God’s grace warmed his heart, it was bitter to see lepers. Here we are confronted with the notion of seeing again. The tenants of the vineyard could not see value in the servants or the Son. They only saw a threat. The Pharisees could not see messengers of God’s kingdom including John the Baptist or Jesus. Jesus, John the Baptist, the blind, the lepers, and many more were not welcome by the religious leaders. They could not see them as valuable in the kingdom: Jesus and his band of sinners were all the stones that the builders rejected.

Once the Lord moves on his heart, the bitter turned to sweetness. St. Francis could show the lepers mercy. He could love them. As his heart opened, Francis began to take more steps toward the kingdom.

Later during prayer, St. Francis hears the Lord saying, “Rebuild my church.” He sells some of his father’s stores of clothes to get money for alms and supplies to rebuild the church of San Damiano. Then he takes up tools and begins to work on rebuilding the church himself. This act of identifying with a common laborer would have been shameful to his family. The father grows angry and locks up Francis. Eventually, he and his father appear before the local Bishop to reconcile.

Once Francis can begin to see the lepers in the sweetness of the Lord, he can continue to open up to actions and attitudes of humility and love. Instead of preserving his status, he can do the unthinkable: cross the barrier between the ruling class and the common people. This is the same kind of offense of Jesus as he welcomes tax collectors and prostitutes into the kingdom.

Lastly, we have the meeting with the Bishop to reconcile father and son. Several early paintings from this encounter depict his father, Pietro Bernadone standing on the left with a group of people. He is holding all the clothes of St. Francis. On the right, we see a nude St. Francis covered by the cope of Bishop Guido. It gives us a picture of St. Francis leaving the old world and all things of the old world behind and being received into the arms of the church. It is a visual image of Philippians 3:8,

“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…”

In our story today, the Pharisees could not let go of their status as teachers of the law, they could not let go of the inheritance and power of the kingdom that they believed they controlled. As a result, they could not see the stone that would become a mountain. In Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he talks about a stone that will knock down the kingdoms of this world. Daniel writes,

“As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. [4]

The Pharisees could not see that the Kingdom of Heaven was standing in front of them. They could not see Jesus, they could not see the prostitutes and tax collectors who would become living stones in this kingdom, this temple of praise. Jesus continues to teach them up until His death on the cross because He is calling them into the kingdom, and some would come. Some would let go of their temporary wealth and privilege for participation in a kingdom that will cover the earth. When God moved on the heart of St. Francis, he could finally see the lepers as living stones. As he moved toward them, he heard the call of the kingdom, “Rebuild my church.” 

May the Lord have mercy upon us and give us grace that we can let go of our own little kingdoms whatever they may be. May we have eyes to see the living stones all around us. May we hear the call to follow Christ as rebuilds his church through us in acts of love and kindness to the least of these, and words of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

[1] Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapters 1–25, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996–2012), 462.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 21:42.

3 see 1 Cel. 17, where this passage of the Testament is quoted. See also Bonav. Leg. Maj., II, 6; and Leg. III Soc. 11. Some texts instead of “feci misericardiam cum illis” give “feci moram cum illis:” “I made a sojourn with them.” See Miscell. Franc., III (1888), p. 70. It is interesting to note here how St Francis on the eve of his death, casting a backward glance over the ways by which he had been led, dwells on this incident which had marked a new era in his life.

[3] Saint Francis of Assisi and Paschal Robinson, Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press, 1906), 81.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Da 2:34–35.


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