Cursed and blessed with ears to hear.

***A disclaimer, briefly.  I wrote this sermon last summer, but it’s been on my mind all week as I’ve listened to the news and watched my new President be sworn into office.  It’s my prayer for the next four years.  Or one of them, anyhow.  That we will have ears to hear. ***

Shenita had done the math.  She’d counted and recalculated every meager addition and every major debit in her tiny account book, once, twice, three times.  After paying for her son’s medicine at the local shaman’s, buying groceries at the market, paying the increasing debt on her small plot of rented land where she grew rice to sustain her family, giving away a portion to the head of her village, her priest, her father-in-law, deducting her eldest son’s school fees, she’d have left only 30 rupees to make it through the month.  Just thirty.  Not enough, never enough.  She felt like she was swimming in pond full of grinning flesh-eating fish, everyone wanting just their little bite, not realizing that they were slowly eating her to death.  How would she survive?  

First century Palestine had its own share of people living on the edge of total deprivation, simply subsisting day to day, hoping for a windfall or a sudden opportunity to lift themselves out of the struggle of daily existence.  None would pass up a golden opportunity to make tomorrow less painful and challenging.  Who wouldn’t want to have to worry about tomorrow’s supper, next week’s debt?  Absentee landowners rented out land to tenants, people such as these, who could not sustain themselves because their land had been bought up and combined into enormous farms owned by the wealthy.  Owned by the wealthy, worked doggedly by the poor.  

Jesus told a story to the leaders of his society, those who challenged his radical reminders of compassion and the true meaning of the Torah.  Told them to think of a landowner, one he called a good man, who had rented out his vineyard to such tenants.  At the time of the harvest, the vineyard owner called in his debts.  He’d take, thank you very much, what was owed to him, his share of the harvest.  But the tenants beat up his servants who came for the harvest, nearly killing them.  When they saw the master’s son coming down the road, cart empty and ready for his father’s share, they realized that he was the last thing standing between them and their opportunity for survival.  So they seized him and killed him, as well.  There, the evangelist Thomas relates, Jesus leaves his audience with the simply command, “Let him with ears, hear.”  

Hear this: these tenant farmers had counted and recalculated their meager accounts.   After paying what usually amounted to nearly fifty percent of the vineyard’s yield to imperial and local taxes, after tending the fields and feeding their working animals, after repairing their tools, after paying their usual dues, their mandated fees for cultic and religious festivals, they would only have around ten percent of the harvest to live on, to trade out and to feed themselves with for the rest of the year.  Not enough, never enough.  And here was the landlord’s son, coming to take it, his share!  So they did what they felt they were forced to do to survive.  The vineyard owner didn’t need this yield, these grapes, as desperately as they did.  A good man, Jesus called him.  Perhaps he was; he was simply taking what he felt he was entitled to, what his business had earned.  And yet, his entitlement dangerously threatened the lives of those who sweated and slaved over his land.  Let those with ears, hear.  

We might believe in our current lives that what we are doing is simply “taking what is ours.”  After all, we too must earn our livings, feed our families.  We live in the “land of opportunity,” the home of independence, raised on the luscious crop of do-it-yourself and the American dream.  We all struggle, have to strive for our share, feel entitled to that little bite of sustenance beyond the most of our basic needs.  This is the way of the world, our world.  Or is it?  Throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the gospels, we hear the voice of God calling out for us to seek justice, to have mercy, to be compassionate toward those who have less than we do.  God whispers to us, sometimes raising nearly to a shout, “Love one another!  Can’t you see how you hurt one another when you do not see?  When you do not look at your own life and realize your disorientation?  Where am I in your lives?  Do you see me there? Let those with ears, hear!”  

Sometimes, as with the vineyard owner who was a good man, we take things that are ours.  Our cheap t-shirts made in the dark by hungry children in India, our coffee harvested through the use of slave labor in Columbia, our democratic freedom created at the cost of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, our self-regard as a nation of independent, self-willed movers and shakers to the detriment of our relationship with the God who willed us into being. The tenants recognized the heir to the vineyard and felt they had no choice but to seize and kill him.  He and his father’s lack of compassion for the reality of the poor who made their comfortable lives possible, their entitlement, was their destruction.  Jesus’ basic mantra throughout the gospels, in all of the gospels, is for us to love our neighbors and our God as ourselves.  The good news is that when all are cared for, God’s reign will have arrived.  We are good men and women.  Let us have ears to hear.

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