World Communion Sunday
Mark Twain once told the story about a man who had memorized the Ten Commandments. He told Twain that his ambition was to go to the Holy Land, stand on the Mount and recite loudly the Ten Commandments. Twain replied, "Have you ever thought about just staying home and keeping them?"
Along with the golden rule of Jesus, that we love God with our heart soul and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, the Ten Commandments, or Ten Words as they are known in Hebrew, lay a foundation on how God ordains us to live together on earth. It is especially important for us to celebrate the ten commandments, the laws that tie us all together, on World Communion Sunday, the religious holiday where we lift up our unity in our diversity in Christ. Today is about the unity of the body of Christ in every land, language and creed. It is a joyful celebration, we thank God for each other, and our oneness in the Lord.
God had led the people out of slavery in Egypt and through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, with constant complaining and looking back on slavery. The commandments lay out the foundation of being a free people, the shackles of slavery gone forever. The first four commandments lay the groundwork and describe how the people were to act toward God. Unlike the pagans who they would live around them, they were to only worship God, not create graven images, not take the Lord’s name in vain, to observe the sabbath and keep it holy. That’s the foundation of our lives, and from that foundation emerge the remainder six commandments, how we treat each other: we honor our parents and then from that commandment we honor others by not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness against your neighbor, and not coveting anything that is your neighbor. World Communion Sunday affirms these laws that bind us together as one people.
After seeing the foundation that has been laid for us today, Matthew seems to present us with the worst possible reading to celebrate World Communion Sunday. This is a brutal and harsh. It’s a tale of disobedience, a landlord who is removed from the scene, perhaps incurring the contempt of this tenants. If the tenants have a bone to pick with their landlord, they do not seek peaceful means to address it. When the slaves of the landlord arrive to collect what is lawfully his portion at harvest time, they could have just turned them away – but instead they administer beatings, stoning and murder. There’s no empathy that these slaves are just like them, hired to do a task by the landlord. A second round of slaves are sent and all summarily murdered. Again, no discussion, no mercy. Unbelievably the landlord finally sends his son – and his is murdered in order to get the inheritance. Why did the landlord keep trying? Why didn’t he send in his goon squad after the first rebellion? This story leaves us unsettled, with unanswered questions, with a sense of the senseless violence and conflict we find in the economies of the world. No communion here, just discord, like what exists in our world today.
Knowing the legal background of this parable may help us to understand the story better. For example, it was necessary for the owner to send representatives to his vineyard every year. If he failed to do so, then under the Jewish law, he would lose the right to claim the fruit of that vineyard. So, the landowner established his rights of ownership by sending his servants, which the story bears out.
On the other hand, we can see from their actions that the tenants wanted to take possession of the vineyard by a process of dispossessing the owner so they could take the vineyard for themselves. This is the reason why they set about killing the servants, and finally also the son.
The reason why the son was sent as the last resort can also be understood legally. Because after the third year, if the fruit was not given, the owner had to take legal action. And the only way he could take legal action was by sending a representative that had the power to take legal action. A servant or a slave does not have such right. But the son, being the heir, had the right to act on his father's behalf in a court of law.
It may seem very strange that the owner, seeing that the tenants killed his servants, would risk the neck of his son. He had no alternative. Only his son had the right to act legally on his behalf. And that is also the reason why he said that the tenants will respect his son (Matthew 21:37: Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'). They will respect him because the son has the power to take legal action against them. Sadly, the landowner did not send soldiers along with the son to protect him.
The tenants were also trying to use the law in such a way that would favor them. If they could show, for example, that the vineyard was unfruitful and therefore that they could not produce any fruit to give to the owner, they could pass the blame to the owner and say that he had entrusted them with an unproductive vineyard. It put them in a position of bankruptcy, being unable to pay their rent. They could in fact sue the owner and ask for compensation for making them work vainly in a bad vineyard. On and on the conflict goes.
So, what does a story of landlord-tenant conflict have to do with world communion Sunday, or with us? Initially a story that condemned the religious leadership of his day, Jesus now seems to be talking directly to us, his 21st century disciples. We are the modern-day stewards of creation. We are the heirs of the Promise. We are called to be the light of the World. In reality, we are the workers in the vineyard – and we have seized the vineyard for ourselves. We believe that we do not owe God anything. Heck, we believe that we do not owe each other anything, all which flies in the face of the Ten Commandments. It is the progression of the problems that we have been seeing in the people of Israel. Last week the people of Israel were at the point of stoning Moses. This week, the tenants kill the landowners’ servants and only son – just as the religious establishment killed Jesus.
This World Communion Sunday is actually a good time for us to reflect on the harvest and what has been done to God’s vineyard. How well have we cared for the earth and its resources? Have we listened to the prophets and teachings sent by God? Have we received with joy the commandments God has provided to provide a foundation on which we are to relate to God and live well in community? The commandments are about healthy boundaries – with God, our parents and the community we live in. Had these laws been followed, the tenants should not have coveted what wasn’t theirs. But because they neglected this commandment, they coveted the vineyard and committed murder to obtain their goal. It is all interconnected– from how we honor God, to how we honor our elders, to how we honor our neighbors. Today is our wake up call. Are we lethal tenants, seeking to usurp the rights of the true owner? Are we lethal tenants, damaging the resources of creation for our own benefit? Are we willing to damage and destroy and seize by force what isn’t ours?
We, like the people of Israel, are on this journey from slavery to freedom. Every step of the way God has been gracious and good, despite the complaints and murmuring. Even in our parable today, the vineyard owner, God, extends himself repeatedly, given the tenants ample chance to repent.
For this reason we have the commandments. So we can be faithful tenants. So we can recognize: it’s all on loan – even our very life. We are the tenants in the vineyard. Will we share the harvest? Can you imagine the world we would have if people chose to be faithful tenants instead of lethal tenants?
So, let us be model tenants and prepare to share the harvest. Let us give back to God what God requires of us – resources to help the poor, widowed or orphan, the stranger in our midst. Let us be generous tenants, grateful tenants, following God’s commandments and creating a true worldwide communion of God’s vineyard, served by all. Amen.