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October 2, 2005 (Sunday 27 · Time after Pentecost)—“What More Was There To Do?”
Pastor David Barber
Isaiah 5:1–7; Matthew 21:33–46
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“What more was there to do?” These words have rolled off the lips of parents, friends, teachers, and yes, even nations and congregations in numerous occasions.
They’ve been spoken in frustration and helplessness. They’ve been spoken in times of great grief and gut-wrenching anguish. Sometimes they’ve even been spoken in anger and resentment.
Parents and spouses who have reached the end of their rope have cried out in agony and pain, “What more was there to do?” or “What more could we have done?”
Teachers have pondered the same in regard to students engaged in unhealthy and destructive behavior. And perhaps, even a nation addresses this question in regard to the catastrophe and devastation in New Orleans and the surrounding region. “What more was there to do?”
Today, we find that question being raised in frustration and disbelief in a love-song concerning a vineyard. This was a vineyard “to die for.” The soil was fertile. It was free of stones. The choicest vines were used. It had the latest technology and equipment.
This was a first-class operation—the envy of all the owners in the region. And now, this owner expected it to yield a great harvest and the best-tasting wine in the area, but instead it yielded wild grapes. “What more was there to do for this vineyard?”
Perhaps those who listened to Jesus as he told his own story about a vineyard would have been familiar with this love-song from Isaiah. Perhaps they would have sung along with great gusto—taking the bait—until they realized that Jesus had turned the tables on them and changed the words.
Jesus doesn’t ask the question, “What more was there to do for this vineyard?” But maybe it’s implied in the story. After all, the landowner seemed to provide a vineyard equal to the one described in Isaiah, and he also exhibited great patience—perhaps to the point of foolishness—when it came to collecting his produce.
When harvest time came the landowner sent slaves to collect from the tenants what was rightfully his. But there was hatred in this vineyard, and the tenants had come to see themselves as owners of the vineyard.
So they treated the slaves shamefully—beating one, killing another, and stoning a third to death. As if that wasn’t enough, the landowner sent more servants. But they, too, endured the same fate.
The owner might have asked, “What more can I do?” And then finding the answer to his own question, he might have said with some resignation, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll send my son. Surely, they’ll respect him.”
But they didn’t! So he’s back to square one—asking his original question—”What more can I do?”
But maybe the landowner isn’t the only one asking this question. Maybe the tenants have been asking this question for years, and they haven’t been receiving a satisfactory answer or any justice for their demands.
The most common treatment of this story is allegory. The landowner is God. The tenants were the Jewish leaders. The servants were the prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos. They confronted the leaders of Israel to be responsible and faithful to their calling and suffered abuse in the process.
The son, of course, is Jesus. He was cast out of the vineyard and killed...just as he will suffer and be crucified outside of the city gates of Jerusalem.
The parable ends in violence and death and to some degree a lack of resolution. What more can God do? God is certainly patient and long suffering, but has even God reached the end of his rope? Will God resort to even more violence as the end of this story suggests?
What if, however, we look at this story from another perspective? What if, as I just suggested a few moments ago, it’s the tenants who asked, “What more can we do?”
In this scenario, the landowner is not God but a part of the Jewish elite, and this would mean that the conflict in this story is more of an economic class struggle than rebellion against God by the tenants.
Because land in Galilee was largely accounted for and intensely cultivated, a man could acquire the land required to build a vineyard only by taking it from someone else.
The most likely way he would have added the land to his holdings was through foreclosure of loans to peasant farmers who were unable to pay off loans because of poor harvests. That’s an old story, but it still happens today, doesn’t it?
This, too, ends violently, and it shows us the futility of violence. But if this version was true, is it any wonder that the tenants responded as they did? Violence is often the end result when folks are hopeless and feel as if they have no options.
These peasants were pushed over the edge in terms of their survival. They were heirs of God’s covenant and God’s allotment of land whose inheritance had been stolen from them.
They were trying to assert their honorable status as heirs—and not just some deplorable thugs. Perhaps somewhere in this tragic process, they, too, might have cried out in frustration, “What more can we do?”
Either version of this story is an old and familiar one. Out of greed—out of obsession and rebellion—people act without restraint. They take and steal what belongs to another—even killing others to advance their cause.
Some of you may have read a recent article in the daily paper about a Wisconsin deer hunter. He was found guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of six other hunters last November. I was interested in this story because it happened about 20–30 miles from where I grew up—just over the county line.
The convicted hunter, who was from the Hmong community, had been trespassing on private property, and a confrontation took place. Four of the victims were shot in the back, and all but one were unarmed.
But that’s not the whole story. Racial slurs had been uttered by those who were shot, and these slayings exposed racial tensions between the predominately white north woods residents and immigrants from the Hmong ethnic group of Southeast Asia.
Yes, one person was guilty, and he needs to be held accountable for his actions, but there are no innocent victims here. Each person in this scenario could probably ask, “What more was there to do?” before their testosterone peaked and the violence erupted.
Whichever version of this story we choose or however we view ourselves in the story that Jesus told—either as tenants or landowners—we are called to live faithfully in a covenant relationship with God and with each other.
Whatever our role, we’ve been entrusted to care for each other and to care for the earth, realizing and acknowledging by our actions who it is that has the ultimate claim upon our lives. We can’t live violent lives—taking what belongs to another—without paying the consequences.
The question, “What more was there to do?” is not just God’s question, but it’s our question, too, especially when we look at the state of the vineyard.
As we view all the suffering, all the pain, all the needs out there that often overwhelm us, this question could be asked in resignation and defeat—thinking that what we do will never be enough to turn the tide of violence, or poverty, or the condition of our environment.
Or this question could be asked in such a way that realizes we are partners with God in the healing of the earth and we do have power. It could be asked in such a way implying that together we can and do make a difference. We can do great things together in this vineyard in which we live. We’re not hopeless and we’re not impotent.
When I attended the Bread For The World National Conference last June in Washington D.C., I went to a workshop on the “One Campaign.” The “One Campaign” stresses the “power of one” and is attempting to rally Americans—one by one—around widespread hunger, global AIDS, and extreme poverty.
We did an exercise in this workshop where the participants divided up and focused on different issues such as clean water, fair trade, rights for women, education, health care, the environment—all areas that are directly related to hunger and poverty.
We were then given a ball of yarn, and the yarn was passed from group to group as each group discussed how changes in their area affected these other areas. It looked like a spider web with all these issues connected. When the tension on the string in one area was changed, all the other areas were affected as well.
Then this observation was made: “Each person doesn’t have to work in every area to make a difference. We work diligently where we have the passion, and what we do, will impact all these other areas as well because we’re dealing with systemic issues and we’re all part of a system.”
God never gives up trying to reach us, to touch us, and to change us. God’s own beloved Jesus came into the vineyard to bless and empower us—giving his life for the healing and the loving of all of creation.
This Jesus received the blows of hatred in Jerusalem so that we might no longer inflict such blows against one another or our environment by our willful actions or even by our neglect.
Instead through our baptism, we were brought into a covenant relationship with God and with each other so that we will enrich and bless the world around us and honor the God of covenant promise.
“What more is there to do?” As God’s covenant people we ask this question not because “we have to” but because “we want to.”
We ask this question out of the grace we have received through Jesus Christ our Lord, and as a result, out of love for each other and for all of creation.
Copyright © 2005 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org