Sunday, October 2, 2011
Lord of the Vineyard
Myrna, my beloved secretary for eleven years at Holy Trinity Church, Ukiah, shared with me a love of Merlot. Although not an Episcopalian, she very nevertheless assiduously read the Scriptures passages as she typed the bulletin each week, and would often raise questions. As we discussed them one day, she remarked: “There sure are a lot of vineyards in these readings!” Indeed, there are, and it’s particularly fitting to be thinking about them in the context of the annual grape crush here in Sonoma and surrounding counties.
As Isaiah uses it (5:1-7), vineyard is a common metaphor for the beloved, a lover, the house of Israel, the people of Judah who are “God’s pleasant planting”. Notice that it’s Godself, in the Isaiah passage, who digs and clears, and plants, and builds a watchtower, and hews out a wine vat, and waits patiently, expectantly for a yield of grapes. But all that God gets in return from the beloved are sour grapes.
Long before the time of Isaiah’s ministry, people had cried out to God in the words of Psalm 80: “Restore us, O God of hosts...Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted” (vv. 7; 14-15). And God did...in so very many ways. for centuries. Yet in Isaiah’s time, for all God’s previous tender care of the people, they still deliver only “wild grapes”. “[God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7b) Through Isaiah, God predicts the logical consequences of unfaithfulness and non-responsiveness on Judah, God’s vineyard. It will be destroyed. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4a)
Matthew’s Gospel (21:33-46) speaks of another vineyard owner. As in Isaiah’s passage, the owner plants, fences, digs a wine press, and builds a watchtower. This owner, however, leases the vineyard out to tenants, “and went to another country…” One might ask several questions: Who are the tenants? friends whom the owner could trust, or strangers? Did the owner make clear the terms of upkeep? Whatever the case, the owner returns at harvest time, expecting a juicy and profitable yield. He sends slaves to collect the produce three times, but the tenants brutally beat the first, kill the second, and stone the third. Inexplicably, Matthew says, “again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.” We find ourselves wondering “Why in the world would he ever do that?”
The real kicker is that, after at least six slaves, probably more, are gravely injured, either beaten and/or killed, the owner sends his son to collect the goods. Amazingly, in a 1st century Palestinian context, all of this behavior is both feasible and believable. It was Rome’s practice to award conquered land to warriors and statesmen [we’d probably call them “politicians” today!] who frequently became absentee landlords with tenant farmers. The tenants would often rebel in order to acquire land for themselves. Since, by snuffing out the son(s) of the owner, the land was considered owner-less, the tenants might claim it as their own. More unbelievable than the tenants in this case, however, is the owner who, even after what they did to the slaves, would risk sending his son. Could it be that Matthew wanted to convey a sense of God’s utter patience with people: even to the point of absurdity?
The wicked tenants in Matthew’s story do not disappoint, and promptly and with finality “do in” the innocent son: “...they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” Upon which, Jesus poses a question, which you and I recognize from the context as being a “loaded” question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?? The disciples unhesitatingly and unanimously conclude, as well might you and I: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
Jesus‘ response suggests that the disciples, and you and I, should bear in mind what has already happened previously in Chapter 21 of Matthew’s account:
- Jesus had made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, symbol of royalty, and drew branch-waving crowds out to cheer him on as “the Son of David” (21:1-11;
- Jesus had lashed out in anger at the buyers and sellers in the temple courtyards, and overturned the moneychangers‘ tables 21:12-13);
- Jesus had immediately confronted the chief priests and scribes when they tried to call him on people assigning to him a clearly Messianic title: “the Son of David” (21:14-16);
- Jesus had cursed a fig tree because he was hungry and found no fruit on the tree (21:18-22);
- Jesus confronted the chief priests and elders a second time when they demanded his credentials of authority. In a crafty move, he agrees to tell them, but only if they’ll explain if John’s baptism came from God or of human origin. When they refuse on the lame grounds that “We don’t know”, Jesus refuses to answer their question (21:23-27);
- Finally, Jesus had just raised a parable about two sons, whose father had asked each of them to go and help him out in his vineyard. One flat out refused, but later changed his mind and went. The other eagerly agreed to go, but, for whatever reason, didn’t go. “Which of the two did the will of his father?, asks Jesus. The hearers respond: “The first.” Jesus reminds the hearers whose hearts were hardened against Jesus and his message that tax collectors and prostitutes, two groups of pariahs in society at that time, had readily accepted John’s preaching of repentance, whereas they had not. Just so, he says, it’ll be the tax collectors and prostitutes who come into God’s reign, and not them: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him...even after you saw it, you did not change your minds…” (21:28-32) In today’s parable Jesus reinforces that by saying: “...the reign of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Who owns the vineyard? Unquestionably, God and only God owns the vineyard: the world, the Church, us, our lives. Scripture scholar Robert Kysar notes: “We may forget that we are servants who have been entrusted with the responsibility of being the Church. We may forget that we are little more than tenant farmers responsible for what God has given us.”
Throughout history God has sent faithful servants, down to the present time. And God has sent us God’s own Son, Jesus. Who is the Lord of the vineyard? God in Jesus is. Our task as servants and tenants of the vineyard is to acknowledge this by living our lives in a way that says that we believe it; to take the gifts which God has given to each of us and use them for the good of the community, the Church, and the world; to be responsible stewards, filled with gratitude for the time, talent and treasure with which God has smothered us in this country, even at our worst, compared to many places in the world.
St. Paul, in the Epistle (Philippians 3:4b-14), is at his most eloquent in describing what must motivate us in working as faithful tenant-servants in the vineyard: “...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ...I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord...I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection...I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus made me his own…”