Pr 22a: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus’ parable suggests the obvious: tenant farmers should not be surprised when the vineyard’s owner sends people to collect the harvest, and killing those people is wrong.
But what if the owner or his ancestor obtained the vineyard by theft? What if the owner will not allow a union and will not negotiate a fair wage or a fair share of the harvest or, in years where there is a bad harvest, a fair share of the losses? What if the owner only employs underage workers, or foreigners or women or other persons who are unable to complain about unsafe working or living conditions?
What should the tenants do? Should they just keep withholding the produce and sending the owner’s messengers away? That won’t work for long. Is killing always wrong? Can one kill in self-defense if the attacker’s weapon is economic oppression?
The beginning of an answer is in the second reading from Philippians. On the surface, it sounds like Paul is only worried about his personal, individual salvation. He is not. Salvation for him is absolutely social and communal. To ‘be saved’ for Paul is not about me getting right with God. It is about us getting into right relation with all of God’s people.”
Paul believes that the resurrection initiated a new creation embodied in the living body of Christ which was a community in which there were Jews and gentiles, slave and free, male and female. To keep such communities alive was not just about “having faith” or having the right kind of faith. It was about learning new ways of justice and reconciliation. Martin Luther King updated Paul when he wrote about Beloved Communities in which the conflicts could be resolved without violence.
So it sounds like Paul is worrying about his personal salvation and regretting his past devotion to the Law, but he is not. And he is not casting aspersions on the goodness of the Law which he had observed as a Pharisee. He is simply saying that now he has new and glorious vision. He wants to stay focused on that so he will only look forward. He will not look back, because the best thing he did in the past was not effective to bring about the Beloved Community.
It’s always tempting to look back and celebrate what was good. But the best things we did in the past were not effective to make the Beloved Community a reality. With Paul, we must look forward: learn about the circumstances in which some of God’s people are left to labor under the oppressive weight of injustice, and do what we can to fix that. Because in the world of Jesus’ parable, we are all tenants. And the owner is not the problem. Injustice is.