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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 21:33-46

A Polite "No" Is Still a No!


Rejection Letters

Throughout the world, each culture has its own unique and enchanting characteristics. For example, the Asian culture is much more sensitive to protecting another person's feelings than Western culture. They are more diplomatic in saying no. However, this sometimes requires using very creative methods. The editor of the Financial Times, a Chinese economic journal, demonstrated this in a rejection letter written to a writer who had submitted an article for publication. The editor wrote:

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper," says the editor, "it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."[1]

I wonder if the master in today's story, would have been less upset if his servants had been more tactful in declining his request. Their letter could have been written like this:

Dear benevolent master

We wish to thank our generous lord for allowing us to slavishly work in his vineyard during the past year. Our unceasing labors and unending toil have been a great delight to us and have produced an abundant harvest and fruit of superior quality. Never in the next millennium will a vineyard yield fruit of comparable taste. It will be quite impossible for any grapes ever to match the juiciness, freshness, and sweetness of this year's crop. Therefore, we will not be sending you a portion of the harvest for fear that once you have tasted this delectable fruit you will never be satisfied with anything less. Rather than permanently ruin your future culinary experiences, we will accept the difficult responsibility of retaining and consuming the entire harvest.

Your dutiful servants

We may find such a thinly veiled ruse a bit amusing but I wonder how often our response to God amounts to nothing more than a polite rejection. We would not want to be as abrasive or as offensive as the servants in today's story but truthfully how much different is our response. A polite no is still a no.

Repetition and Imagery

The parable flows directly from the one we considered last week and is a continuation of the same themes—obedience and rejection. Next week the Scripture passage will repeat these identical lessons. A good teacher knows that students learn best when challenging ideas are repeated. Skillful teachers also understand that students grasp difficult concepts more easily when the concepts are related to the students known world. Jesus being a skillful teacher employs both—repetition and known imagery.

Since the days of the prophets, Israel considered herself God's chosen vineyard. The prophet Isaiah announced to the nation:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts

is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are his pleasant planting; (Isa 5:7)

His opening words would have captured the attention of all good Jews, of course God, was the landowner. Jesus next reminds his readers just how far God's providential care extended. The landowner first planted a vineyard. This would allow the tenants to have both a place to live and the means of income. He then built a fence around the land to protect the crop from animals and raiding thieves. He built a winepress so that the people could turn the fruit of the vine into a marketable commodity. By using the familiar Jesus reminded his listeners that God had been faithful to his promises and provided Israel everything they needed.

We know from experience all that God has provided but it is so easy to forget. The people of Israel should have remembered. The stories had been past down from generation to generation. Each story reminded the people that since Abraham, God has provided and cared for his people.

God works in the Ordinary and the Extraordinary

God first spoke to Abraham and told him to leave his country, his people and his father's household and to go into another land. God promised this old man that even though his wife had been childless all her married life, even though she was past the child bearing years, she would give birth to a great nation. Any woman who has longed to give birth but never able to do so can identify with Sarah. Those women know the sorrow, disappointment, and discouragement Sarah felt. Many of those women may also know Sarah's joy when she felt the life in her womb.

Some women might have felt Sarah's joy when they heard the news that an agency had found a child they could adopt. Let me ask you, is it any less a miracle for a woman to give birth than it is for parents to receive the gift of life from another woman?

After the promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled, God still had to make good on his promise of a homeland. This did not come quickly. Abraham's descendants had to go into Egypt and grow into a great nation. They had to suffer under Egyptian bondage so that the longing of their own land would grow strong within them. Finally, God raised up his prophet Moses who stood resolute before Pharaoh and gained freedom for his people. Moses then led the nation through their wilderness wanderings to the banks of the Jordan River. We remember the miraculous ways God provided by sending manna from heaven and water from a rock but is it any less miraculous when God provides an ordinary job for someone so that they can afford food and clothing for their family?

After the death of Moses, God selected Joshua to lead the people into the promise land. The skills of warfare that had been honed in the desert brought them victory over the clans and tribes that inhabited the land. We remember the extraordinary story of the battle of Jericho. The priests marched around the city for six days blowing their ram's horn. Then on the seventh day, the walls came tumbling down from the blast of the horns. God intervened in a dramatic, miraculous way but was it any less of a miracle, when the army of Israel won a victory after a day of intensive hand-to-hand combat? The authors of Joshua and Judges do not think so. They credit both to the powerful hand of God. They knew that God had worked in the extraordinary way by bring the walls of Jericho down but he had also worked in the ordinary by giving them victory in battle.

The nation of Israel has many stories of how God worked to buy the land, to build the fence, to dig the winepress. Some are miraculous, some appear ordinary, but all are credit to the working of Yahweh, the God who is, the God who delivered them from Egypt. Through the use of one image, Jesus brings the entire history of their nation to the forefront of his audience's thoughts. As Jesus begins this parable, he wants us to remember how God worked through the circumstances of our lives in both ordinary and the extraordinary ways. He wants the Pharisees and us to remember that we are indebted to a generous God.

The Absentee Owner

With their thoughts racing back and forth from the past to the present, Jesus continues his story. After setting up the vineyard with everything it needed, the landowner hired some tenants and then left on a journey. The listener is startled when they realize that Jesus is suggesting that God is an absentee landowner.

This is difficult for many people to accept. We want a God who remains in residence, not to give us instruction and direction but to bail us out every time we have a problem or get sick. We want a God who rescues us in times of danger and prevents injury and hardship. When God appears to be the absentee landowner, we reject him.

Phillip Yancy struggled with many of these issues and it eventually led him to write a book entitled, Disappointment with God. In his final chapter, he tells the story of Umbrato Eco, an Italian author whose inner conflict with the image of an absentee landlord led him to renounce his faith.

Eco's unbelief crystallized one day when he attended a soccer match with his father. He was 13 but he did not like sports and attended with grave reluctance. During the game, he become bored and his mind began to wander. Later he would write:

As I was observing with detachment the senseless movements down there on the field, I felt how the high noonday sun seemed to enfold men and things in the chilling light, and how before my eyes a cosmic, meaningless performance was proceeding….For the first time I doubted the existence of God and decided that the world was a pointless fiction.[2]

Once people believe that God is an absentee landowner, it becomes easy to ignore him. The tenants in the story did that and more.

God Killers

The day came when the first harvest was completed. The master sent a servant to collect his portion of the intake. The tenants beat him and sent him packing without the rent.

The renters had broken their contract. In abusing the servant, they had abused the master. The master's income and honor were at stake, what will he do? If he allows such behavior to go unchallenged, this will be the last rent paid in Galilee. What will he do?

He sends another servant and again the tenants beat him. So the master sends his son thinking that that the tenants will surely have respect for him but the tenants seize the son and kill him thinking that they will somehow inherit the vineyard when the master dies.

In a sermon entitled, the Magnificent Defeat, Fredrick Buechner describes how modern society has duplicated the response of the tenants of the vineyard. He uses a true but very painful story to illustrate how our society has become God killers and its tragic consequences.

It is a peculiarly twentieth-century story, and it is almost too awful to tell: about a boy of twelve or thirteen who, in a fit of crazy anger and depression, got hold of a gun somewhere and fired it at his father, who died not right away but soon afterward. When the authorities asked the boy why he had done it, he said that it was because he could not stand his father, because his father demanded too much of him, because he was always after him, because he hated his father. And later on, after he had been placed in a house of detention somewhere, a guard was walking down the corridor late one night when he heard sounds from the boy's room, and stopped to listen. The words that he heard the boy sobbing out in the dark were, "I want my father, I want my father"[3]

In the American church, we pride ourselves on our piety and religiosity. We are the bearers of the truth, defenders of the faith, guardians of the law, but are we?

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote…

Have you not heard of the man who lit a lamp on a bright morning and went to the marketplace crying ceaselessly, 'I seek God. I seek God…. They laughed, and . . . the man sprang into their midst and looked daggers at them. 'Where is God?' he cried. 'I will tell you. We have killed Him, you and I.' We are all His killers,"[4]

I wonder if God feels our polite rejection at a much deeper level. I wonder how often God feels the blows of the Roman soldiers in our apathetic response. I wonder how often God feels the sting of the whip in our lethargic efforts. I wonder how often God feels the piercing pain of the nails in our insincere endeavors.

Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees is as applicable to us today as it was to them. God will not entrust his kingdom to people who politely or violently reject his calling. If he took it away once he can do it again. The kingdom of God is not an entitlement because we were born in the United States or attend a Presbyterian church. God is looking for faithful people who will allow themselves to be bruised by the stone, the stone which was first rejected. Let us respond in faithful obedience and humble ourselves in grateful submission. Let us transform our polite no's into an enthusiastic yes.



[1] Dynamic Preaching, "It is a terrible thing to be rejected," October November December 1999, Seven Worlds Corp.

[2] Phillip Yancy, Disappointment with God, (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1988), pp. 247,248 citing Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality, p. 167-168.

[3] Yancy, Disappointment with God, pp. 253, 254 citing Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, (New York, 1979), p. 65.

[4] Yancy, Disappointment with God, p. 253 citing Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

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