A Meditation on Judgment

Matthew 21:33-46

I have to confess: I have never liked the Gospel of Matthew’s emphasis on God’s judgment. It is a theme that appears throughout the Gospel where Jesus tells that at the end of time, God will determine the truth, whether people were faithful to God or not. Those who are faithful are welcomed to God’s kingdom, but the unfaithful are “thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Perhaps it’s because I was a chatty kid in school and got put on the “bad citizen’s list;” maybe it was that time when the teacher made me throw out my paper of apples because I had colored the whole page red before cutting them out instead of staying inside the lines. I wanted so much to be good but couldn’t quite accomplish it. And when I was reprimanded, I felt that outer darkness. So when I read parables like the one from today’s lesson, I get a little squeamish, as if the hammer is going to fall on me.

The story goes like this: It’s harvest time, and the landowner sends faithful slave to collect the produce, but the tenants rise up and beat and kill the emissaries sent to them. When the landowner sends his son, they kill him too, thinking they can now keep the vineyard for themselves.

Now, it’s important to know that Jesus told this violent tale in what turned out to be the final week of his life. On one level, today’s parable is a thinly veiled reference to Jesus’ upcoming death – he is the son who is sent and will be killed.

But on another level, it is a judgment upon the “tenants” of Jesus’ day. The target audience for this parable is the religious leadership which includes the chief priests and Pharisees who engineered Jesus’ arrest and execution.

The parable employs a typical analogy used elsewhere in scripture, including our Old Testament lesson: The Landowner is God, the vineyard represents God’s people. In this parable, a new element is added – the tenants, who care for the vineyard. While the tenants bring forth a harvest, they do not seem to acknowledge to whom the harvest belongs. They attack those sent from the landowner and refuse to relinquish control. “What will the [owner of the vineyard] do to those servants?” Jesus asks. The chief priests and Pharisees answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the…harvest.” Jesus concludes by making the identification: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

It is a gruesome tale, and its violence and treachery are sadly familiar in our world. In many ways, I suppose I ought to be cheering in the judgment decreed. The tenants are given the ultimate punishment, and God puts the vineyard under new, faithful management. Justice is served.

But wait…that’s not how it goes. The ending to the story is supplied by the chief priest and Pharisees, not Jesus. Instead of issuing a punishment, Jesus gives a stark warning: Read your scriptures! Don’t reject the stone that God has made the foundation, or it will trip you up!

Upon closer inspection then, this story seems like a second chance. Jesus tries right up to the end to confront the religious leaders with their hardness of heart and to get them to repent. In this sense, Jesus is as much about mercy as he is about justice. This helps me with the other passages about judgment in this Gospel. Jesus’ harsh words are designed to motivate, not to kill. Jesus was faithful to God’s desire that all people be a part of God’s kingdom of justice and mercy, even the chief priests and the Pharisees.

I don’t know about you, but somewhere inside me there is still that little girl who is waiting for the hammer to fall. And so I think it is really important to distinguish between our judgment and God’s. Our judgments are always partial. That’s why those teachers didn’t quite get it right with me. Their judgment shamed me rather than motivated me. That’s what happens with so many of our judgments. We are operating on partial knowledge or preconceptions and prejudices that are just aren’t true. And we do harm to others, just as harm has been done to us.

But God’s judgments are different. I remember a pastor’s Bible study some years ago with my friend Pastor Tim. You have to know that Pastor Tim is one of the wisest and most humble people I know. He is a good pastor and has a deep spiritual walk with God.
We were reading an Old Testament prophet Malachi, that the coming Messiah would be like refiner’s fire and judge the earth. I joked, “I don’t want to be burned!” But I was only half joking, and Tim knew it. He said, “If God’s going to burn away all my impurities and take away the things that keep me from being true gold, then I am all in! I trust that it will be better.”

God’s judgments are not about shame or punishment. They are about love. God loves us enough to speak the truth to us about ourselves—the truth that reveals and then breaks up our hard hearts. God wants to remove any impediment and open us up to receive the Goodness and Love God is ready to pour into us.

That’s what Jesus was doing in our Gospel lesson from Matthew. Perhaps some of the chief priests and Pharisees listened. Later on, the famous Pharisee St Paul did. And so there is hope for you and me, that we not accept the hurtful judgments of other people; that we see when we have pronounced them ourselves and ask for forgiveness; and that we accept the loving judgments of God, whose deepest desire is Good for us, who wants all the priests and Pharisees of all times and places in the Kingdom.

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