Listening for God
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
This week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel begins with a word loaded with significance for its original Jewish audience: “Listen” or “Hear” (v. 33).
It echoes God’s command to Israel in Deuteronomy 6 (a.k.a. the Shema), a word oft recited in Jewish prayer and custom, “Hear, O Israel.” In other words, listen, really listen, to what God has to say. The implication, of course, is not just physical hearing or basic comprehension of the words, but spiritual/intellectual listening and faithful attention/obedience to the deeper meaning of God’s word. “Hear/listen,” Jesus says, “to another parable/story.” Even if you’ve heard this story a thousand times before, I’d ask you to do the same and trust that God still has something to say to us today.
The parable/story introduces a man, in this case a head of household, followed by a number of action verbs. The man “plants” a vineyard, “fences” it around, “digs” a wine press, “builds” a watchtower, “lets/leases” it to groundskeepers, and “goes away” for a while. So far, this parable follows the structure of the prophet Isaiah’s ancient parable almost exactly. (Isaiah 5:1-7). It is an example of Jesus himself interpreting “the Bible.”
The parable portrays a lot of work that, really, only a head of household, landowner or other master-figure in the ancient world would have been in a position to do. No wonder, when he “sends” his servants merely to collect his share of the produce (which would have been an assumed part of the lease agreement between himself and the groundskeeper-farmer-tenants), and gets nothing but beatings, murder, and trouble in return, there is a certain amount of outrage, as there is in Isaiah 5. But the similarities stop there. Whereas Isaiah blames the vineyard itself for this inexplicable outrage, Jesus’ parable adds a number of intermediary figures: including tenants, servants, and a son. In so doing, Jesus seems to be taking the blame away from the vineyard. Also, what’s mind boggling in Jesus’ version of the story is how much patience, and little outrage, the owner shows toward the farmer-tenants. Three chances? And even after sending two waves of servants to the vineyard, the father risks the life of his own son? Strange behavior for a master-father, back then or today.
The Pharisee’s answer suggests that they would not have been so forgiving. They would “put those wretches to a miserable death” (v. 41, NRSV). Notice Jesus never says that’s what he or the father in this parable would do.
Methinks the chief priests and Pharisees do protest too much. At least their anger and their outrage suggests they were paying attention to the story. It turns out, in typical prophetic style (see the story of the prophet Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12), Jesus uses the parable to turn the Pharisee’s anger and outrage against themselves: to demonstrate that the behavior they most fiercely condemn is the lack they can’t see (or confront) within themselves. But the Pharisees’ inexplicable, paradoxical outrage continues. Even though the Pharisees “realized he was talking about them” (v. 45), this only increases their outrage and desire to put someone to a miserable death. So they end up, after all, just like the bad guys in this story. Speaking for God, Jesus has never threatened to treat them the same way, only that the Kingdom would be taken away from them (suggesting that it presently belonged to them?) and given to others who would do the job faithfully.
The way Jesus tells this story, it isn’t simply a repetition of Isaiah’s old familiar tale. It’s a traditional story played in an entirely new key, both to meet the interpretive needs of the present situation and, above all, to reveal the truth of the gospel of God: especially the patience and long-suffering of the Father and the Son for our salvation. We must do the same with our traditions, stories, situation, and the help of the Spirit’s inspiration today. We must so listen as to be able to reinterpret the traditions and the stories we have received, with the Spirit’s help, for different circumstances, in order to reveal the gospel of the steadfast love of God the Father and the Son who created us all and longs to give and for us to receive the gift of the Kingdom.
Finally, just as Jesus’ telling of the gospel story takes an inward turn, and the listener’s pointy fingers are turned in upon themselves, so should we pay careful attention in our hearing of God’s word to its meaning for our own inward life and spiritual journey. The culture of outrage and finger pointing in the news and social media is not so different form the world the Pharisees were building. If we are not careful, we may very well end up like the worst of them: always hearing these words of God, but never listening, never producing real fruit for the Kingdom, verbally beating each other to death with gossip, wanting to do something about our problem, but doing nothing for fear of other’s opinions.
1. What part or parts do we play in Jesus’ parable? What does it have to do with us? How?
2. What is the vineyard, gift, or stewardship God has given us to care for? What responsibilities are implied? What fruits does God expect of us?
3. How good do you think you/we are at listening/communicating? Do we hear, understand, and obey? Or are we too busy talking?