World Communion Sunday (October 4, 2020)
TEXT: Matthew 21:33-46
“There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit …” (Matthew 21:33b-34)
This week we come to the gospel of Matthew and find—for the third week in a row—a parable about the vineyard, and how—in it—we can see what the kingdom of heaven is like. Two weeks ago, we heard about labourers in the vineyard who worked different hours, but all received the same pay. Last week, we read about two sons who were both asked by their father to go to work in the vineyard. One said yes, but never went. The other said no, but later went anyway. Today, we have a third vineyard story—one that takes a violent turn.
Jesus tells us about a landowner who carefully readies a vineyard and leases it out to tenants. At harvest time, he wants his share of the produce, and so he dispatches a few of his servants to go and collect it. But when the servants arrive in the vineyard, the tenants beat, stone, and kill them. The landowner sends more servants, and the same thing happens to them. Finally, the landowner sends his own son, somehow believing that the tenants will respect him.
The tenants, however, think that if the landowner has no heir, then they themselves will gain the property. So they murder the son, hoping to win the inheritance for themselves. Jesus concludes the parable by asking his listeners: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 1
And his listeners—who are the highest religious authorities in Israel—give the obvious answer: “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.” 2
Then Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God shall be given to those who will produce fruit.
This is a strange parable. The tenants’ actions are bizarre. Perhaps they resented the landowner receiving benefit from the land they had been working. Yet, the arrangement they had was not unusual. In fact, it’s a familiar model today. Everybody who earns a profit still has to pay a share to someone higher up the chain.
Surely, the tenants would not have gone without some fruit from the vineyard themselves. But they seem to expect that the landowner will not be fair with them, and they want to take their due however they can get it—even if it means resorting to violence and murder.
Well, perhaps they had reason to believe that they would be cheated or underpaid. Today, we generally think the same way, don’t we? Everyone seems to be out for themselves, protecting their own interests—“looking out for number one”—and expecting others to do the same. But notice what Jesus says in verse 43. He says that the gift of the kingdom of God is given to those who are producing fruit. Those who produce fruit get as a gift what the tenants were trying to take: part of the harvest, part of the kingdom. Jesus says that the kingdom cannot be taken by us—it can only be given to us!
That’s startling news for us—we who are so used to having to take what we want. Not much comes free these days—and when things are offered to us as free, we look for strings attached. We look for the fine print that will ensnare us in an agreement we do not want to make. And so we take what we want. We take from one another. We take from the earth. We take from those who can’t stop us from taking. Why? Because we’re convinced that this is the only way we can get anything for ourselves. That’s not very good news. But is there another way?
Some of you may be familiar with a series of children’s books called The Chronicles of Narnia. Authored by the great C.S. Lewis, they remain pretty high up on my own list of favorites.
One of the books in the series is called The Magician’s Nephew. It is a story of beginnings, explaining how the world called Narnia was created—and, actually, it is full of stories that sound very similar to stories from the Bible. In one chapter, there’s a scene with a boy named Digory, who wants an apple from a tree in the centre of a garden. Digory needs the apple to save the life of his mother, who is dying back home in London. The garden is gated, and a sign on the gate reads:
Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair. 3
Also in the garden is a witch named Jadis, who climbs over the garden gate and takes an apple for herself, hoping it will give her eternal life. Digory plans to give the apple to his mother—but the witch, having eaten one herself, urges the boy to also eat his apple, saying:
“You simpleton! Do you know what that fruit is? I will tell you. It is the apple of youth, the apple of life. I know, for I have tasted it; and I feel already such changes in myself that I know I shall never grow old or die. Eat it, Boy, eat it; and you and I will both live forever and be king and queen of this whole world—or of your world, if we decide to go back there.” 4
But the lion Aslan—who is the Christ-figure in the books—knows that the witch will not have the kind of eternal life she wanted. He says:
“That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after … All get what they want; they do not always like it.” 5
We can take whatever we want from the vineyard of blessings that God spreads before us. But God has a better way—a much better way—where we receive as a gift what God wants to give us.
One of the things that has intrigued me—as someone who has by now presided over many Communion services—is watching how people partake of the bread. In one church I served, the elements were offered by “intinction”—that is, by having people come forward to tear a piece of bread from the loaf and dip it into the chalice. Some people seemed hesitant; they would tear off just a tiny piece—so small that they had trouble dipping it into the cup of juice without getting their fingers wet. Others would try to get a small piece, but would tear off more than they intended; and then they would look a little guilty for taking too much. Others seemed to favour the crust of the bread, tearing a piece from the edge of the loaf. Still others would go straight for the middle—taking a big hunk of bread, right from the soft center. And some would find the perfect piece: not too big, not too small, but just right—like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
I used to wonder whether this symbolized how they felt about the grace of God. Were some of them timid, afraid they’d take too much love from God—while others were eager, and ready to dig in and grab all they could get their hands on?
Of course, in these pandemic times, many congregations have reverted to another traditional way of doing things, where we partake of individual wafers and tiny glasses of juice. We may do this out of sanitary concerns (and in order to satisfy public health requirements), but I think this method offers us a unique gift. Here, we do not take Communion; we receive it. And isn’t that what’s it’s all about? Is not Communion a gift of grace and love from God to us? If you have to tear off your own piece of bread, perhaps you miss the symbolism—that in Communion, you receive a freely-given gift.
What kind of gift is it if you have to take it yourself, tearing it away from the loaf? Maybe that’s why some of the folks in my former congregation had such trouble taking their own bread; God’s grace is not for the taking—it’s for the giving. It must be received as a gift.
Today—on World Communion Sunday—the fruits of the vineyard will be offered to us, in tangible form, as we are served from the table and share in Christ’s outpouring of love. And here’s the connection between this sacrament and our Christian life: in the rush of worrying about who gets what—and who gets how much, and how we can get more—we can become completely focused on taking everything we can for ourselves and guarding it.
Instead, Jesus asks us to wait, so that God can give us the fruits of the harvest—give us a share in His kingdom. It is a gift to each one of us—offered without price, and meant for sharing … truly, “the gifts of God, for the people of God.” Amen.
1 Matthew 21:40
2 Matthew 21:41
3 C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: HarperCollins, 1983), p. 171.
4 Ibid., p. 175.
5 Ibid., p. 190.