This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 21:33-46.
Sometimes a good way to interpret scripture is through other scripture. So before I get to today’s gospel, I’d like you to recall another story, from the Gospel of Luke.
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Gabriel told Mary that she would soon bear a child through the Holy Spirit, a child she would name Jesus. And Mary responded to Gabriel: “Yes, here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
But what if Mary had said no? What if she said to Gabriel, “Umm, sorry. Please find someone else?” Would Jesus have never been born? Would the gospels never have been written? Would God’s plan of salvation be ruined? Did Mary have that kind of power?
I don’t think so. Presumably God had a good reason for choosing Mary. But I also think that Mary had free will. And while she could have decided not to be part of this, her free will could not have prevented God’s will from happening. So what if Mary said no? Perhaps God would have sent Gabriel to someone else. And perhaps Luke’s gospel would read like this instead:
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Cana, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Simon. The virgin’s name was Joanna. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
And perhaps we would celebrate this woman named Joanna as the mother of our Lord, instead of Mary. And perhaps everything else would stay mostly the same. And who knows? Maybe Mary wasn’t even the first woman Gabriel went to.
Because here’s the thing: God’s plan of salvation is not dependent on us. God will find a way to make it work despite any hesitation or refusal on our part. It reminds me of something Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism. He was explaining the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And Luther wrote, “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.” God’s good and gracious will comes about with or without us. But we can choose to pray that it comes through us as well. God has plans for each and every one of us in this room, plans to bring his will and his kingdom into the world through our hands, but if we fail to do that, that will not stop God.
Reminds me of Jenny. When I worked for an inner-city congregation, Jenny was an eight year old girl who came to Sunday School sometimes. She always dressed the same, wore the same tattered winter coat no matter the weather. She walked there herself, no parents or older siblings brought her. She had some behavioral issues, but she really loved to be there. I often wondered about Jenny’s home life. I’m sure it wasn’t good. I vividly recall the day she came in after missing a few weeks in a row. As soon as she came in, she proclaimed loudly to everyone, “I’m so glad to be home!”
God calls parents to take care of their children, to provide a home for them. I believe that Jenny’s parents were failing to do that, for one reason or another. And so God called the congregation I served to help out. And our little Sunday School indeed provided a home for Jenny. God’s will was done, just not the way we might expect.
And that’s the good news of today’s gospel. Jesus weaves a story that’s really about the religious leaders, the corrupt chief priests and Pharisees. They were the tenants called to take care of God’s vineyard. The slaves sent to collect the produce were the prophets. The religious leaders had over and over again persecuted and killed the prophets; those leaders really blew it. However that didn’t mean the vineyard was useless. It would still yield fruit. God would find new tenants, passing the work onto someone else. And so this story isn’t a threat, that if we fail in our work, God will take our salvation away. Rather, it’s a promise, that even if we fail in our work, God will still accomplish that work.
I believe the message here is that if we fail to take care of someone in our charge, for whatever reason, God will not abandon that person. God will still take care of him or her, in some other way. If we fail to accomplish something God calls us to do, God will still accomplish it, in some other way. And if someone or something fails us, God will still take care of us, in some other way.
Now all this does not mean that we should say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, God will take care of it.” No, this is not license to ignore our responsibilities. God has called us to this work. And what we do is important. But what we do is not all-important. The weight of the world does not rest upon our shoulders, even if it sometimes feels like it does. Jesus says elsewhere that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. He does have a yoke and a burden for us, and that’s good. It’s good to have a purpose, a meaning. But that burden is light precisely because the sun does not rise or set based on our success. We do not hold the fate of the world in our hands. And that’s good, because we’d blow it. God holds the fate of the world. And that’s good. Because God won’t blow it.
So I encourage you to do what you are called to do. Follow Christ, and do God’s will. But do it with a light heart, knowing that God will take care of it in the end. We are the workers in the vineyard, but the vineyard belongs to God. It always has, and it always will.