Proper 22A 2005 Matthew 21:33-43
It seemed so apt to what our Gospel lesson is about today, at least deep in the layers, that I plucked this story out of the
reflections columns in our latest newsletter. So bear with me. It’s the story of a two stop light town. As you came
into the town there was a sign out front of a church that read, "The church of God". On the next corner, at the first light
there was another church whose sign read, "The true church of God." At the second light was another church whose sign read,
"The one true church of God". On the way out of town, the last church had an even bigger sign that said “The ONLY one
true Church of God”. (1)
Saint Matthew’s Gospel was probably written toward the close of the First Century A.D. Matthew’s church saw itself
as the messianic community, the eschatological people of God, distinct from all—Jew or Gentile—who did not believe
in Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew continued the Jewish practice of using Gentile in the sense of “outsider.”
Thus both his anti-Jewishness and his anti-Gentile bias are, in effect, expressions of his sense of belonging to the Christian
community distinct from the non-Christian world, both Jewish and Gentile. The Gospel draws the line between believers and
non-believers in Christ; it is Christ, not Jewishness, that divides people. (2) It concerns whether synagogue or Christianity
is the one true church of God.
However, in the Palestine of his day, following the destruction of the Temple and the temple cult by the Romans in 70 A.D.
the Pharisees, pharisaism, and the synagogue had become the dominant element in Judaism and the forerunner of modern Judaism.
It was during this time that Matthew’s community particularly felt the need to separate itself from the religious discipline
of the synagogue – rigid adherence to the Law – and establish its own identity as the church of Jesus Christ the
The Gospel according to Saint Matthew is the work of a Christian churchman who writes to serve the needs of the Church and
especially of its leaders. This is not to deny that he had an evangelistic and missionary interest. But the author knew
that it is only one of the essential and prominent interests of the Church. The Church worships; it learns its heritage;
it teaches its converts, its children, and inquirers; it lives together; and it gives its witness to the world. For all of
this common life it needed a clear, usable, complete, trustworthy record of its basic story and testimony. As it spread and
grew, its leaders in particular needed such a solid basis for their teaching and witness to Christ. Saint Matthew was a churchman
who wrote such a Gospel for the worship, teaching, common life, and active witness of the Church. He was a Christian teacher,
who wrote what he had been teaching, and arranged it to enable others to share effectively in this continual teaching task.
The Church, which emerged within Judaism and yet soon spread beyond the bounds of Judaism, needed an interpretation of the
Old Testament which would be faithful to its historical roots and yet would give Christians a vivid sense of the miraculous
new work of God in Jesus Christ. It needed clues to the deep meaning of God's work in this historical figure. It needed
to hear the gospel message of the Kingdom with its assurance both of present divine action and of the certain future triumph
of God's cause. It needed to know the acts and teachings of Jesus that would spur the faith, direct the worship and sacraments,
and guide the varied daily life of his followers. It needed some clues as to how grace and discipline are to be combined in
the community life of disciples. It needed to sense the urgent evangelistic and missionary obligation of the Church. It
needed a document which leaders of limited ability and understanding could use in guiding the worship, sacraments, teaching,
life, and witness of the Church.
The Gospel of Matthew met that need and continued to meet it in subsequent generations. Its author was a Christian teacher
who has been the teacher of centuries of Christian leaders and worshippers. The Church honored and cherished his work because
he had given it a powerful and useful tool for its common life and mission. He was great precisely because he made it his
concern to serve Christ and to further the work of Christ through the Church. He was outstanding not because he tried to do
something e unusual but because by dedicated ability he presented faithfully the common message of the Church in a way well
suited to meet the needs of the Church and its leaders. He wrote in one place; he represented a particular background; but
he rose above the provincial and the petty; he wrote for the Church and expressed its common heritage
Saint Matthew’s Gospel, like the other three, show us that the Early Church not only remembered and used the oral gospel
tradition as it was finally being written down, but it also even shaped that gospel tradition to meet the needs of its ongoing
life. That is why there are significant differences between each of the gospels and why it is dangerous to take them literally
without understanding those differences. In any case all four gospels are our foundational and basic source for the life
of the Early Church as well as for the life of Jesus. The Gospels are documents of faith and give evidence of those early
years of the Church for which we have no other adequate direct historical description. The Gospels are inherently our evidence
that the Early Church had a real historical tradition with which to work. (3)
Saint Matthew’s Gospel in particular was shaped by two circumstances. The first was the way by which Matthew’s
Church received its oral and written tradition. Its sources were from Saint Mark and from the as yet undiscovered sources
we know as Q – for the German word Quelle for source or spring -- and for the special material unique to Matthew which
we must assume came from an oral tradition known mainly – and perhaps only -- to him and his church.
The second was the context in which Matthew’s Church found itself. In the aftermath of the Jewish War with Rome, only
two vigorous Jewish communities survived intact and lived side by side in Palestine. One was the Pharisaic synagogue community.
The other was the Christian congregation consisting of Jewish Christians and gentile pagan converts. Because both had survived
the war and emerged as strong entities, both stood ready lead the people. Both had deep but differing – even conflicting
-- convictions about Scripture and the will of God, the true identity of the people of God, the meaning of the destruction
of the Temple, and the direction to take into the future. Both communities possessed gifted teachers and strong leaders.
In particular, with regard for our Gospel text for today, there is also another element. As Jewish Christianity became separate
from the Jewish synagogue, it was necessary to establish its own discipline and structure and to differentiate them from those
of the synagogue. Saint Matthew is here, in the story of the tenants in the vineyard, probing the mind of Jesus through the
received tradition. He is concerned with issues of authority and leadership as he also explores questions of discipleship
and followership. (4)
The three vineyard parables – the laborers, the two sons, and the tenants – are in this vein and have these emphases.
It is also a warning against arrogance and falseness in the new religious leaders of the new Christian Church. And a sharp
reminder that the important things are these:
To love the Lord with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul.
To love our neighbors as ourselves.
To keep our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission.
But the parable of the tenants also teaches us that the God who loves us forgives us over and over and over again