Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Matthew 21:33-43;
Is. 5:1-7; Phil. 3:4b-14
THE PARABLE OF STEADFAST LOVE … NOT SACRIFICE
Have you ever really wondered why it took the cross to save us? Why did God have to give up his Son to death on a cross in order to save us? Why not an army of angels, for instance? If you or I were planning this campaign of salvation, what would we come up with? Wouldn’t it be something more like that army of angels?
What would it have been like if we could have been privy to the council between God the Father and God the Son? Would it have gone something like this?
God the Father says, “You know, all I’ve ever really asked from my earthly children is that they take care of my vineyard, my Creation, with steadfast love and care. And ever since that first man and woman, who listened to that darned serpent, they’ve gotten it wrong. They think they own the thing themselves, and try to make me happy with these pitiful little offerings. So I’ve sent my prophets to tell them again. Isaiah told my people:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. When you come to appear before me, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. –Isaiah 1:11-17
And Amos said:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. –Amos 5:21-24
Micah asked my children:
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression?” The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you: but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:6-8
And Hosea – ah, my prophet who didn’t mince words – he was most direct of all:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. –Hosea 6:6
Yes, my Son, I sent the prophets to tell them. And all they did was persecute them and even kill them. Now, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to send you.” And the Son responded, “Yes, I’ll go.”
Is that something like how the heavenly council went between God the Father and God the Son? Amazingly, in this little Parable of the Wicked Tenants that we have before us today, I think that Jesus is giving us precisely such a glimpse at what God has done in carrying out our salvation. God sent the prophets, and then God sent his Son. And Jesus worked diligently to give us the same message as the prophets. Twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directly quotes Hosea’s version of that message:
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ –Matthew 9:13; 12:7
Have we yet learned what this means? There’s confusion for us about what sacrifice even means. Another prophet was wise King Solomon. There’s that famous story about his wisdom, which is an ideal story to help teach us the difference between the kinds of sacrifice. Two prostitutes come to Solomon with one baby, both claiming the child to be theirs. Solomon calls in his swordsman and says, “I’ll solve your problem; I’ll have this baby cut in two and then both of you can have a piece.” The one who really wasn’t the child’s mother thought that a good idea, a necessary evil to settle their dispute and to get her vengeance on her rival. That, my friends is the old kind of sacrifice, a willingness to spill someone’s blood in order to keep the peace. But the one who was the child’s mother – well, she shows us the other kind of sacrifice, self-sacrifice. She was willing to give up her baby to the other woman, in order that it would be spared. Solomon was wise enough to know the difference between these two kinds of sacrifice: the old kind that is willing to sacrifice someone else, most often the weakest among us, and the kind of sacrifice that Jesus transformed that old one into, namely, self-sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus took that old kind of sacrifice – because that’s exactly what they were doing to him, spilling his blood to help keep the peace – and Jesus turned into something else, self-sacrifice, a way of living toward others with steadfast love and mercy, a way of living that usually pays the most attention to those who are our usual victims of the old sacrifice, the weakest among us.
‘We’ve left that old kind of sacrifice behind long ago,’ you tell me? Well, have we? Today begins Mental Illness Awareness Week. How long ago was it that we sacrificed all our mentally ill brothers and sisters into terrible institutions? ‘It’s for the good of everyone else,’ we used to say, ‘We’ll sacrifice them to those places so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with that craziness.’ Has that kind of sacrifice really been so long ago? Why do we still have this week to try to raise our awareness? Don’t we often still find ways of doing our best to forget about or ignore the mentally ill among us? Yes, we still tend to sacrifice the weaker among us, I think.
Sometimes, we can even be doing that old kind of sacrifice against someone while thinking we are being self-sacrificial. I’m not sure we always know the difference. Here’s an example: a pastor I know made a daring move one day. He hosted an inter-generational educational event around one of the Bible’s most difficult stories. He had them all watch together an intense video dramatization of that time that Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. You know the story? Just as Abraham raises his knife to kill his son on an altar of sacrifice, he hears God say, “No! Don’t! For heaven’s sake, there’s a ram over there in a thicket, kill that if you must, but don’t kill your son.”
When this pastor led the discussion afterward, he wisely split up the adults and the children. And he found the children eager to discuss it. They knew what this story was about, they said. This church was in a wealthy neighborhood, with most the parents being busy professionals of some sort or another, so the kids started talking about the long hours their parents spent helping others as health care professionals, counselors, lawyers, etc. This pastor, thinking in terms of the newer Jesus kind of self-sacrifice, thought he knew what they were talking about and so jumped in: ‘Oh, you’re telling me how your parents sacrifice themselves to help others, right?’ ‘No,’ they told him, ‘we’re trying to tell you how we never see our parents, how neglected we feel, how sacrificed we feel.’ They were talking about that old kind of sacrifice!
I struggle with this myself! I’m one of those professionals who has to seemingly make choices between the different kinds of sacrifice. For the sake of the whole community, for example, do I focus on doing the most public things, like preaching and teaching and administrating youth programs, even if it means ‘sacrificing’ the hurting individual who may need my time in a different way? And if I try to meet all the needs of everyone in the parish, am I sacrificing the needs of my own kids and wife? The problem, of course, is that there are not enough of us, enough of the time, caring for one another. If we all could listen to our Creator God and take seriously all the time the call to care for creation and for one another, especially the weakest members among us, then there would be enough of us. There are enough of us on this earth to get the job done of caring for each other and for this earth. But we don’t listen to our Creator’s call sufficiently, and so we find ourselves making choices that sacrifice the weakest among us for the sake of the whole group, or for our own sakes.
So here we are, all of us together, to be fed once again this morning with that other kind of sacrifice, Christ’s sacrifice that turns our old forms of sacrifice into self-sacrifice, into lives of serving one another. This is an amazing thing! A truly Holy Communion!
How amazing is it? Let’s finish this morning by noticing how Jesus himself finishes the parable. He doesn’t finish it really, but lets his audience finish it:
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.”
Do you see? His audience, us, supplies that old kind of sacrifice, that plan of salvation which makes use of an army of angels that somehow swoops in and wipes out the bad guys. The problem with this solution, of course, is that we all end up being the bad guys, even when we’re trying to be good. So thank God that God had a different solution! Thank God the Father that he sent the Son into the world to not just tell the message of the prophets one more time. No, the Son didn’t just teach God’s message more clearly with parables like this one. No, the Son came to live God’s message to us. That’s why it took the cross to supply God’s true ending to this parable. God the Father, the owner of the vineyard, didn’t slaughter us all, didn’t sacrifice us or his Son. No, in the cross, God, through the steadfast divine love, transformed our sacrifice into self-sacrifice, into the life of serving one another that we are fed with once again this morning. How amazing is this? In Jesus own words, quoting the Psalmist: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 2-3, 1999