by Crystal Ann Solie
What am I going to do with you?
For those of you who had a childhood or an adolescence or maybe even an internship like mine, these words might be all too familiar.
As a whisper, or a laugh, or a silent smile-sigh-headshake combo, this expression was the standard response to some fantastic messes that I created or otherwise got myself into over the years. There were those pictures my parents took where spaghetti, sweet potatoes or some other food ended up on my face more so than in my mouth. There were trips to the beach where my brother and I would dig a hole, fill it with water and sand, and cover each other with the gritty, muddy mixture. And this last year there was the brilliant idea I had of teaching a Bible story to 25 eight year-olds after handing each of them a squirt-gun.
What am I going to do with you?
These fantastic messes were, in way, joyful celebrations of life and they were all easily cleaned up with a wash cloth, a dip in the lake, or a change of clothes.
But we know too well that there are those messes that are not so easily cleaned up. Messes that leave us covered in embarrassment, anger or shame. Messes created through thought, word, and deed when we fail to listen and speak up. When we fail to share our gifts or prevent others from sharing theirs. When we throw our hands in the air, giving up on a relationship that we think is beyond redemption and can’t be salvaged.
Messes that cause our hearts to be devoured, that trample our sense of self-worth and create an overgrowth of distrust.
What am I going to do with you?
In these tragic messes, these words echo the disappointment and exhaustion of a parent who is at her wits end – who is fearful and unsure about how to respond to such devastation.
What am I going to do with these people?
MY children that create these fantastic and tragic messes.
This is a question that God has working through since the beginning:
What am I going to do with that murderer Cain?
What am I going to do with those scheming sons of Jacob?
What am I going to do with that scheming, murdering adulterous David?
What am I going to do with them?
The tenants in Jesus’ parable have similarly made a mess of the vineyard they were hired to tend. These tenants have failed to gather the harvest and deliver it to the owner of the vineyard. They have beaten, killed and stoned the owner’s slaves. They have taken the owner’s son, thrown him out of the vineyard, and killed him. We get the sense that greed is the motivating factor behind this violence, however I wonder if there aren’t other elements at play – maybe fear, anger or insecurity. Maybe a “bound conscience.” But really, regardless of the reason, I think most of us would agree that their violent actions are completely unjustifiable.
In Matthew’s Gospel, a number of Jesus’ parables tell us the fate that befalls the disobedient and the unmerciful – they are cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Mt 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30) But Jesus passes no such sentence on these tenants – he seems to be letting them off the hook that way. Instead, Jesus turns to the chief priests and the elders in the Temple, and asks them to supply the conclusion to this parable – “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (21:40)
Last week, Charles Featherstone pointed out that we humans are really good at dealing out death and there’s certainly a lot of death going around in this parable. The death of the slaves who are doing their master’s will. The death of the son who went to the vineyard at the request of his father. And now, the death sentence handed down as Jesus’ audience quickly condemns those mess-making tenants – “[The owner] 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.” (21:41)
And Jesus doesn’t correct this assessment. Jesus doesn’t appeal this conviction. In fact, he says, “You know, you’re absolutely right. Those tenants will be put to death, and the vineyard – thekingdomofGod– will be taken from them (from you) and given to a people that produce fruits of the kingdom.”
But We have a God whose love is great enough to redeem anyone, to redeem everyone – God who claims and protects Cain with a mark on his brow. God feeds and reconciles those sons of Jacob inEgyptas they weep all over each other. God who never abandons David. God can repair and reconcile any relationship.
But what is God going to do with the dead slaves, with the dead son, with the dead tenants and vineyard?
What is God going to do with us, with the Church, with God’s creation in the midst of these fantastically tragic hot messes that we create or otherwise get ourselves into time and time again?
Luther gives us a helpful thought regarding the significance of Baptism in his Small Catechism that helps reframe this parable and ponder these questions in a different light. Luther writes that:
[Baptism] signifies that the old creature in us with all sins and evil desires
is to be drowned and die…and…
that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God.
To die and be raised. God puts that tenant, that old creature in us to death and a new person comes forth to produce fruits of the kingdom. So when the chief priests and the elders proclaim:
“[The owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants...” (21:41)
somewhere in the background is the trickling of a stream that is picking up speed and coursing into a raging river.
We are justified, reconciled, wiped clean by God through a Baptism where God promises to drown us in transforming floods of love and mercy and forgiveness. Through a Baptism where God promises to cast us deep into the fires of the Spirit to be refined and inspired. God promises us a death and a resurrection through the death and resurrection of the Son.
What is God going to do with us? What is God doing with us?
This is not a parable just speaking about Christ’s coming days inJerusalemor the return of Christ at the end of days. This is a parable speaking to this day and reminding us that flourishing and fullness comes to us in a daily death. A death into which we are baptized. A death that comes with the promise that we too will be raised to new life today to be the tenants who offer back to God the harvest of the vineyard we’ve been hired to tend.
Baptism is that wash cloth, it’s that lake, and it’s that new set of clothes that God gives us in response to the tragic messes that we create or otherwise get ourselves into. And we’ll probably need a wipe or a dip or a change sometime today...and tomorrow…and the day after that. And God will be there all the while, knowing exactly what to do that next mess that comes around – knowing exactly what to do with us.