The Grapes of Grace: Matthew 21: 33-46

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“Like the tenants in the vineyard, both Maggie and Jared and, in all honesty, many other members of that congregation, thought that the church belonged to them. Many new people were joining and, yes, some of those new people were black, a few were gay, a couple were mentally ill, and a handful were poor. The fruits of the church were transforming and that was unacceptable to many in the congregation. They believed the church was their church, and they didn’t want it to change. Ownership has long been the American way.Robin White

Wing + Prayer

By The Reverend Robin White

The Joads: Ma, Rose of Sharon, and Tom. (In John Ford’s 1940 film of Steinbeck’s novel.)
The Joads: Ma, Rose of Sharon, and Tom. (In John Ford’s 1940 film of Steinbeck’s novel.)

Robin White Weekly Hubris

LAKE HARTWELL South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—April 2019—Like many American high school students, I was assigned John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and both loved and loathed it. The violence, the injustices, the human cruelty, tore at my heart while, at the same time, the glimpse of grace and hope in the novel filled it. The beginning of the story is haunting and apocalyptic, with its descriptions of the sun-parched earth of a late summer’s day in Oklahoma, where the crops are withering and where gentle breezes blow up into fierce, dust-choked winds. Steinbeck’s rendering of the Dust Bowl leaves a reader as breathless as the Okies of the1930s.

My feelings about the lectionary reading for this morning, from Matthew, mirror my teen-aged responses to Steinbeck. After I agreed to preach for you and looked up the lectionary reading for this day, I scrolled through my sermon files to see what I might have written regarding this text. It is hard for me to believe it, but I have managed to preach nearly every Sunday from the lectionary, for 20 years, and have never once addressed this text from Matthew. Perhaps it was the violence, the human cruelty, the severity of the text that has caused me to avoid it. The harsh judgement as well as the brutality against the servants in these verses caused me to steer clear of this “assigned text” for years.  

This parable is one of three that Matthew reports Jesus telling as a complete set. New Testament scholar Fred Craddock calls this the “controversy section.” Matthew sets these parables in the midst of three conflict stories involving Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities after he arrives in Jerusalem. Christ has overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple. The very next day, hungry or, as we say in my family, “hangry” and perhaps still in a bad mood from the Temple incident, Jesus curses the fruitless fig tree, causing it to wither. When he enters the Temple again, the chief priests and the elders question Jesus’ authority, and he responds with a trio of parables. The text in question for this morning, the middle parable, tells the story of the vineyard owner, his servants, and the wicked tenants.   

So, what was it that evinced such wrath, such visceral hatred, in the vineyard? Why did the tenants beat, stone, and kill the servants who had come to collect the harvest for the landowner?    

Perhaps, the tenants living in that beautiful, lush, prolific garden, had come to view it as their own. There are bound to be victims when ownership issues are at stake. Compassion, understanding, generosity, and grace may all become casualties of such perceived ownership. When the vineyard that once seemed boundless as a source of jobs, food, and security, suddenly morphs into a space where boundaries seem to be closing in, and there is less and less for more and more, anger, fear, and hatred may seem natural responses. Our human instinct is to protect what we view as ours and so it is not all that surprising that anger and hatred consume people intent on keeping the vineyard all for themselves.      

I remember a day when I walked into the church office, only to encounter a red-faced, seething, Jared, an elder in the church, and a retired police officer from New York City. I had always found Jared to be a bit arrogant, with anger simmering just below the surface. On this particular day, however, his rage was not masked. With fire in his eyes, and a scary edge to his voice, he told me that he had just caught five little black boys roaming around the church building. He wanted me to call the police and have them arrested. 

“Were they stealing something?” I asked.  

“No, but they might have if I hadn’t discovered them and thrown them out.”  

“You threw them out?” I asked, trying to remain calm.  

“Well, let’s just say I marched them out the door.”   

I cringed, imaging the scene and the fear those little boys must have experienced. “This is my church,” Jared said, “and those little . . . boys had no business being in here. They were trespassing.”   

Still trying to remain calm, I could feel my own anger surfacing.  

“Jared, this isn’t your church. The things in this place do not belong to you or to anyone. It is God’s church and I don’t believe those children were hurting anything by being here! Did you ask them if they needed something? Did you ask them if we could help them with anything?”    

With this, his face got redder and a little spittle came out as he spoke. “I think you need to call the police.” With this, he turned and went out the door, slamming it behind him. We never spoke of the incident again, but it has remained tattooed to my mind. 

The AIDS quilt.
The AIDS quilt.

In 1996, I went to Washington DC to view the AIDS quilt. This was the last time it would be displayed in its entirety. It was one of the most powerful and moving experiences of my life, and I feel so grateful for having that experience. Every December first, the Presbyterian church I served in downtown Dover hosted the World AIDS Day service followed by a candlelight vigil. It was one of the annual events I had initiated at the church, and I was enormously grateful that the session of that congregation endorsed and supported the day of remembrance and re-dedication. 

One night, Maggie, a 60-something-year-old member of the congregation showed up at a session meeting to express her concerns about our annual AIDS service.  She was a little more than concerned that I had not only gone to DC to see the AIDS quilt, but that I had then had the audacity to preach a sermon referencing my experience there. “People in the community are saying that we are a gay church,” Maggie said. “We might as well hang a banner over the front door saying as much!”  

Like the tenants in the vineyard, both Maggie and Jared and, in all honesty, many other members of that congregation, thought that the church belonged to them. Many new people were joining and, yes, some of those new people were black, a few were gay, a couple were mentally ill, and a handful were poor. The fruits of the church were transforming and that was unacceptable to many in the congregation. They believed the church was their church, and they didn’t want it to change.  

Ownership has long been the American way. Most of us in this country believe in ownership, autonomy, and self-reliance. These are the values we strive to live by. And, yet, our American vineyard, once an endless source of jobs and security, has grown smaller. This is part of the reason the slogan “America First” has resonated with so many. Who should be blamed for the shrinkage of opportunity? The government? Corporations, that move factories to other countries with cheaper labor? US naturalization and immigration laws? I am not saying that Jesus’ parable is about economic recovery but I am saying it is about the vineyard and the fruit. The parable is about the fear and anger and feeling of not-enough-for-all that produced hatred; the hatred that consumes people who believe they are the rightful owners of the commonwealth of God.

I’ve been heartened to see people around this country pulling together to help those ravaged by the recent earthquakes, hurricanes, and wild fires.  And yet, it seems as though we in this nation and in the world, grow farther and farther apart when it comes to issues like economic injustice, hate crimes, systemic racism, the brutality of the very people we have entrusted with the authority to watch over and protect us, gun violence, and terrorism. Hatred and barbaric hostility, wherever they are unleashed, injure all of God’s children. Add to these the rape and pillaging of our planet, and our violence extends to affect all of God’s creation; the creation that belongs to God, and not to us.   

How many servants, sent into the vineyard to harvest the fruits, have been murdered? Archbishop Romero, Maura Clark, Ita Ford, MLK, Emmitt Till, Harvey Milk, Heather Heyer, Marsha P. Johnson, Matthew Shepherd, Bobby Kennedy, even children waiting to begin worship—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley . . .

We could spend the entire day calling out names.

It is easy to believe that as progressive, faithful Christians, we can be lumped into the “servants” category. And yet, if we are to be faithful to the text, we must recognize our own capacity to be like the wicked tenants.  

I think of the violent attacks in school, at concerts, and in movie theaters. In synagogues, and churches, and mosques. The guns used to slaughter innocent victims are being used precisely as they were intended.  As tenants of God’s glorious vineyard, we have created an environment that leads directly to such events. A tragedy like these is often passed off as something that “couldn’t be helped,” but I am suggesting that all violence in our shared vineyard is the result of negligence by a people and culture in love with violence above life; ownership above love.  

We are killing God’s servants. We are killing ourselves.

Things have not changed so much since the time of Isaiah and Jesus. The themes Steinbeck presents in The Grapes of Wrath are as relevant today as they were during in the 1930s. Historical, social, and economic circumstances separate people into rich and poor, landowners and tenants, and the people in the dominant roles struggle viciously to preserve their positions atop the heap. We have seen the clip play over and over again: fear, anger, and hatred lead to violence and death.

Again and again, Jesus calls for us to heed the violence, to dig beneath the surface and expose what is driving such hatred. If it is fear, we are called to face the fear. If it is despair over loss of jobs, loss of arable land, loss of habitat, we must go there, to that uncomfortable place, and talk it out. If it is anxiety over the evaporation of security and comfort, over the loss of what is rightfully “ours,” we must find a way to make a paradigm shift.   

We all want to be owners. We have a very hard time being faithful tenants. But, according to Jesus’ parable, God wants us to be tenants who will offer up the produce at harvest time.       

Tom Joad, as part of his own transformation from displaced person to activist, leaves his family to fight for social justice, marching off to lead the struggle towards making the future a kinder and gentler one.  He promises to live his life devoted to a soul greater than his own. Recognizing the truth in the teachings of his friend, the Christ-like, Jim Casy, Tom realizes that a person’s highest calling is to put him- or herself in the service of the collective good. 

In my own opinion, however, both as high-school reader and middle-aged preacher, is that it is Ma Joad who embodies the true nature of God in Steinbeck’s novel. It is she who holds the family together, serving as both leader and provider; rock and cornerstone. Ma is the bearer of grace and kindness as she feeds a bevy of hungry children with soup she has prepared. She remains a calm, steadfast presence for all those around her. Her sorrow is deep, but it manifests itself not as wrath but, rather, as grace.

The miracle and hope in our own parable for this morning is that God keeps at it; keeps at us. Despite our greed and jealousy, our need for earthly security, despite our unwillingness to act, God continues to reach out to us, to plant seeds of change in us. And because God keeps at it, the seeds grow, despite our neglect or inattention. The seeds grow, often in places that we would never expect. The seeds grow, because they are cared for from beyond. The wicked tenants kill the landowner’s son, but the good news is that he does not stay dead. He abides in the vineyard, reminding us that we are all God’s guests. This is the harvest time and God, through the resurrected Christ, continues to come to us, seeking signs of love and grace, because that is the way the commonwealth of God works.  

We see this so clearly illustrated in the ending of The Grapes of Wrath.  It is one of the most poignant and memorable conclusions in American literature. Ma Joad, the model of selfless sacrifice, wordlessly directs her eldest daughter, Rose of Sharon, to cradle a man nearly dead from starvation at her bosom.  She feeds the man with the milk meant for her stillborn child.  Even the most horrible and desperate human circumstances may be weathered with grace and dignity. That is the miracle of living this life as we are meant to live it, in the fullness of our shared commonwealth. It is a miracle that will take your breath away.

The Rev. Robin Kaye White grew up in a farming community in Central New York State: she is descended, on both sides of her family, from dairy farmers, and is most alive, still, in rural North American landscapes. A voice major, she studied Music at Ithaca College; then earned her MDiv at Lancaster Theological Seminary and did graduate work at Princeton Seminary and The Theological Institute of Advanced Theological Research in Jerusalem, Israel. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), White was recently a Co-Moderator of the National Board of More Light Presbyterians. In the summer of 2023, she served as Bridge Pastor at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati Ohio. White is passionate about liturgy—“the work of the people”—and preaching. In her sermons, she strives to illuminate the original context of scripture and tease out its messages for the fraught present. She has had the privilege of “holding space” for the dying and their loved ones and experiences this ministry of presence as a gift: she is most willing to go with people as they journey to desert places. She states: “I have lived my life by adhering to Paul’s words in his letter to the church at Rome, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’” She is just as likely, though, to quote Rachel Held Evans as St. Paul: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” A Lesbian-Pescaterian-Presbyterian, Reverend White is most alive out of doors, whether hiking, biking, kayaking, golfing . . . or just sitting on a rock. (Banner and Author photos: E.B.-Herring; Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)

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