"God's Pale Blue Dot" – Matthew 21:33-46
[Jesus said,] “Listen to another parable: A landowner planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to some tenants and went away to another country. When the time of the harvest came, he sent some of his slaves to collect his produce. But the tenants seized the slaves, they beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, the landowner sent other slaves, this time more than the first, but they treated them the same way. Finally, he sent his son, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son coming, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him and collect his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now, what do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?” They said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death. And he will lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him his produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you not read where it is written, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.’ Truly I tell you, the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom. Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush whoever it falls upon.”
The chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables and they realized that Jesus was talking to them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
This parable is always about perspective for me. Jesus is letting the Pharisees and chief priests – the cream of the religious crop of his day – have it, really. He’s calling them to task for their unfaithful ways.
What the chief priests and Pharisees realize is that, in the parable, Jesus is the Son, sent to see and to celebrate what the tenants of his Father’s vineyard have been up to; how they’ve been managing things; how they’ve been caring for what has been entrusted to them; how they’ve been using the blessings they’ve been given. And, of course how welcoming and respectful they would be upon meeting the Son, in the first place – the heir to the throne, as it were.
What Jesus knows, of course, and what the chief priests and Pharisees have to admit when they look in the mirror that this parable represents for them: is that they aren’t living up to the landowner’s expectations. If the fruits of this proverbial vineyard are more than grapes – and we know the fruits of God’s kingdom aren’t really fruits; …if the fruits of God’s kingdom are things like grace and mercy, forgiveness and welcome, love and hope and compassion and humility, then the finger pointers and the gate-keepers, the close-minded and the powerful – the chief priests and Pharisees – were like the tenants in Jesus’ parable who were not only keeping all of the goods for themselves, they were also the ones who would run the Son out of town, kill him and hang him on a cross. And all of this was hard news to hear.
And it’s supposed to be hard news for us still. And, like I said, this is all about perspective for me. So I came across this little ditty recently that is all about perspective, too.
I was told that Joseph Sittler, a well-regarded theologian who wrote and taught a lot about the care of creation and environmental theology was asked once what he thought would happen if/when humanity ever destroyed the planet earth, and his response was something like, “I think God would begin again somewhere else.”
So all of this reminds me of something Jesus is trying to get across to those chief priests and Pharisees – the leaders of the religious in his day. That if they weren’t going to play along with this new thing God was up to in the world, through Jesus…if they weren’t going to start extending grace and offering forgiveness and welcoming the outsider, and loving the “other,” that didn’t mean God’s kingdom wasn’t going to keep on coming. It just meant that it was going to come to and for the sake of somebody who would get it, and live it, and share it the way God intends.
I’d say the Church, in our day and age, needs to hear this message just as loudly and clearly and with as much conviction as the Pharisees and chief priests heard it from the lips of Jesus. There is a generation of people – in our world, in our culture, in our neighborhoods – who don’t know or care about what we’re up to here, on Sunday mornings or on any other day of the week. None of this is relevant to their lives. None of this meets them where they live. None of this addresses their questions or meets their needs or fills the emptiness in their lives, if they even know or care that there’s an emptiness waiting to be filled.
In fact, this growing list of people – of every age and lifestyle and demographic we might imagine – identify themselves as “NONES” when they fill out surveys asking about their religious or spiritual affiliation. (“NONE” = N.O.N.E.) I’d call them “NONES,” because none of this is their fault, in my opinion. This is my fault. This is our fault. As the ones minding the store – as the workers in the vineyard – as the tenants entrusted with the produce of God’s harvest, the Church in the world has spent so much time – too much time – inside our own walls and behind our own fences, that we’ve stopped returning the fruits of God’s harvest to the world around us, unless they come asking for it.
I think the Church is like another, holy sort of “pale blue dot.” It’s a gift we’ve been given in the grand scheme of God’s plan for creation. It’s a small, but mighty, holy place we have been called to enjoy and to share; to tend to and to preserve; to use faithfully, to serve generously and with deep gratitude and wide grace, so that God’s promises and purpose aren’t lost in the midst of so much that would steal the Church’s thunder.
The Church is full of chief priests and Pharisees still, who, though we aren’t inclined to see ourselves that way for all sorts of reasons, are being invited to step up and out of ourselves in ways that extend the grace we share and celebrate in as many ways and places as we can – because that’s how we pay back the landowner for letting us live in the vineyard of God’s grace the way that we do.
And please know, this isn’t just judgment and fear and “shame on you” kind of stuff from Jesus – for those Chief Priests, those Pharisees, or for you and me, either. This is Jesus reminding us that we aren’t fully alive… we aren’t everything God created us to be… we aren’t as joyful or as complete or as fulfilled… our lives don’t have as much meaning as they could have until we’re loving like Jesus loved; until we’re forgiving like Jesus forgave; until we’re working for the justice and peace Jesus embodied; until we’re loving our enemies or sharing space with outcasts or sitting with sinners, or giving away more of what we’re tempted to keep for ourselves.
Jesus is pointing out that, just like the pale blue dot of the world won’t stop spinning, no matter how much we do to neglect or destroy it, the pale blue dot of God’s Church won’t be able to stop the Kingdom from coming to pass. God’s love will win. God’s grace will rule the day. God’s vineyard will bear fruit that lasts. Our invitation and our joy – our calling as baptized workers in the vineyard – is to get on board, or stay on board, and invite others to join us for the harvest, because we and the pale blue dot of God’s world will be blessed and better for it, when we do.