"By your fruits"

A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on October 8, 2017

Texts: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

October 8, 2017—Proper 22A

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46


          Do you want the easy version or the hard version of this parable? The easy version, honestly, is pretty good news. For the Church, anyway. Because the easy version, the classic version, picks up Jesus’ criticism of the Jewish leaders and runs with it, telling us that the new tenants (that is to say, Christians) have supplanted those wicked former tenants (that is to say, uhh, the Jews). This has not, of course, been good news for the Jewish people. Over the millennia, this idea of supersession combined with the accusation of having killed the Son, have been made the very foundation of hateful and murderous anti-semitism.

          The New Testament has not been good news for the Jews. That’s a shameful history that we must not sweep under the rug. We did that, which means we have to admit, repent, and do all that we can to atone for that. And part of that process is to look back at these texts and search for the hard version of the parable. The version in which the chief priests and the Pharisees aren’t stand-ins for the Jewish people as a whole. After all, the disciples and Jesus were also Jews. Which makes the target of Jesus’ criticism much more specific and uncomfortable, because his problem actually seems to be with the kind of religious people who have become a little too self-satisfied, a little too sure of their own righteousness.

          Which means, of course, that any one of us, or the Church as a whole, might well face judgment. Which means we might need to examine the ways in which we deflect (like Wonder Woman and her wrist bands!) all the challenges God’s prophets make upon our lives. Because the fact is, human beings as a group possess impressive skills when it comes to justifying our own behavior: normalizing it, minimizing it, rationalizing it.

This was brought home to me in a striking manner while I was listening to an interview on Death, Sex and Money the other day. The host was interviewing a woman who has been shoplifting, fairly regularly, for about 15 years now. It started as a kind of lark, when she was a teenager from a poor family pocketing a lipstick here and there, but over the years her activity has increased greatly. It was amazing to hear her developing motivations and justifications. She won’t steal from small businesses, but sticks to larger corporations who already have such losses built into their business plan. She emphasizes her family’s needs, the fact that she and her husband can’t provide for their children on the seasonal restaurant work in their small town. And then she talks about discovering an online community on Tumblr, in which shoplifters swap tips and post pictures of their latest hauls, and she describes how wonderful it is to have found a group of people she can be honest with, who don’t judge her.

          And, I have to say, it was all pretty difficult to listen to. To hear the growing list of rationalizations: I’m not hurting anyone … I need this … I’m not the only one so it must not be that bad. It brought home to me that people aren’t necessarily wrong when they warn about the dangers of normalizing certain behaviors. Human society has the ability to manufacture permission for an almost unlimited range of behaviors, from the simply peculiar, to the actually destructive, to things that are flat out evil! We rationalize; we take cover in the idea that it must not be so bad, if so many others are doing it; and we generate the blanket absolutions that spring from the idea that “We are the righteous, which means that anything we do must be righteous!”

          We do all of these things, though that last one is the one highlighted by today’s gospel. The religious elites at whom the story is pointed have a blindspot: their absolute conviction that they are the Chosen Ones, they are The Righteous … so they don’t need to consider what the righteous response might actually be.

          Jesus, however, puts them on notice. He does not care whether you are Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor; does not care whether you belong to any one religion or nation. None of those things automatically equals rightness (or wrongness, for that matter). What matters is the fruit your actions or inactions bear in this world.

What matters is the fruits. Which means you need to be asking what the actual effect of your behavior might be. Whether that behavior is normalized or demonized by society as a whole, what does it actually bring about in this world?

Does it violate one of those central commandments, set out by God to give us the benchmarks of a holy and just society? Does it give glory to a rival god (of money, of war, of relentless productivity, of selfish pleasure)? Does it cause dishonor to our elders? Are you taking what is not yours, are you distorting the truth, are you betraying those who trust you, are you consumed and warped by jealousy? And seriously, in any way, directly or indirectly, are you destroying the life and health of other people?

Are you? It’s a real question. It’s a question about whether we really want to claim our inheritance. Which is not, in fact, the vineyard: that belongs to God. Our inheritance, the promise for the tenants of the Kingdom of God, is the fruits themselves. The inheritance we are after is justice and righteousness. The inheritance is health and sustenance. The inheritance is a world governed by mercy and repentance and forgiveness.

It reminds me of something I heard this week: that we are confused about the work of the Church. We think it’s about making bad people good, and good people better, but (in fact) the work of the Church is bringing the dead to life! (Pulpit Fiction podcast 240, published Sept 30, 2017).

Bringing the dead to life. As Paul puts it: Becoming like Christ in his death, so that we might somehow attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:11). Being Christian isn’t about getting the stamp of righteousness that will then mark everything you do as righteous from now on. It’s about being united with Christ in his willingness to work tirelessly for forgiveness and reconciliation, to suffer for confronting and casting out evil, and to pay the price for healing and feeding all the least and the lost of this world. We are united with him in that, so that all those things that indifference and selfishness and rationalization and self-satisfaction have killed within us might be brought back to life.

Our inheritance is nothing more and nothing less than being raised from the dead. This is what the prophets have always been trying to tell us. This is the power and truth that the Son of God wishes to bring to being within us. And this is what we need to ask ourselves: what are the ways in which we seek to reject that inheritance? How do we act to rationalize our own behaviors, no matter what they destroy in this world? And how might we be honest and brave enough to see them for what they are, and choose instead to be raised from the death they bring into our lives? 

Those are the hard questions. This is the hard version of this parable. But it’s also the life-giving version of the parable, not just for the Jewish people, but for us too. May we follow it through to new life. Amen.

Clare Hickman