“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Before we look at the parable which is the focus of today’s Gospel passage, we need, perhaps, a little context: Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds as the Son of David, the fulfilment of their hopes, prophecies and dreams, coming in the name of the Lord to usher in the new world order. Then immediately after that, Jesus went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the traders and claimed that space back for God before continuing his healing ministry; showing that he had authority not just over the crowds and the religious institutions but authority over nature itself.
Let’s be clear: Jesus was clearly a threat to the religious and social leaders of the day. He was exhibiting enormous and miraculous powers, the crowds were absolutely enthralled by him, his courage and boldness in confronting the institutions of power was astounding.
But we need to remember that although we invariably see the religious authorities as blinkered, they were, to all intents and purposes, the good guys of the day as they sought to teach and to give a moral lead to God’s people and hold society together. In Jesus’ own terms they were close to the Kingdom of God: what was hampering them was their inability to step outside of the longstanding tradition of closely prescribed religious rules and regulations and show a human face in implementing the spirit and not just the letter of the law but they were hard, fixed, obstinate and resistant to the new revelation of what God was doing in their midst. Jesus had already outmanoeuvred them over the question of his authority and had told a parable about a vineyard which effectively accused the religious authorities of dishonouring God to the extent that they were at the back of the queue for admission to the Kingdom of God, behind the prostitutes and tax collectors.
And of course, this was festival time just before the Passover, when Jerusalem was packed to bursting with pilgrims: all this was played out in public. The authorities were rattled because they understood what Jesus was saying and were furious. Matthew tells us that "They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet."
Wouldn’t you have liked to have been a fly on the wall there?
So today we pick up a second parable about the vineyard: Jesus is on a roll.
Nobody around Jesus at the time when he spoke this parable heard it without realizing that Jesus’ was quoting an earlier parable spoken long ago by the prophet Isaiah: “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” (Is. 5:1-7) Jesus quotes the description of that vineyard almost precisely in the opening verses of the parable that he now speaks. Isaiah very explicitly says, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” And the house of Israel has gone astray.
Isaiah’s very down to earth, very unambiguous about the problem between God and his vineyard: “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!”
“Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard,” the Lord says, “I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up.” In other words Israel’s evil actions or failure to act don’t simply make God feel bad about what’s happening: he’s getting ready to do something about it.
Those are hard words: words of concrete action and a determination to change thing. They aren’t mere words of anger, but the promise of angry and harsh reaction to the faithlessness of his people.
When Jesus takes hold of this very old parable through which all his hearers recognized the judgment of God held in suspension over Israel, he gives it a new twist.
Once again the owner builds and provides for his vineyard, just as in the parable by Isaiah. But this time he leaves it, fully operational, in the hands of tenants who are to care for this profitable enterprise and there’s quite clearly an agreement between the two that the future profits are to be divided in some way between the renters and the owner.
In the following story it’s clear that Jesus refers to the prophets when he speaks of those who are sent to the vineyard by the owner to “collect the rent.” It is equally clear that without fail the prophets of God are rejected, beaten and even killed. The renters have come to think of themselves as the owners of the vineyard and resent the true owner’s constant insistence on receiving his rightful due.
It seems implausible that the owner would put up for long with such treatment of the servants he sent to collect the rent. Even more incomprehensible is the fact that he sends his son as a last resort, thinking that those who rejected his servants would honour the son.
Is it possible to imagine God’s long-suffering and patience through the ages, given this mistreatment of both his vineyard and those sent to collect the rent? Or is it possible to imagine God’s willingness to send his son into the midst of this rebel group of workers? Isn’t it the height of conceit and overconfidence, in fact, when the tenants say, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” Then at the height of their smugness “they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” It is an obvious reference to the fact that Jesus was crucified “outside the city gate.”
Today’s parable has a past, a present and a future in it:
The “past” is nothing other than the long history of God’s patient calling of his people through his prophets to be faithful, to serve him, to care for the vineyard of which Isaiah spoke with such lament: one that had been claimed for their own by the very ones to whose care it had been entrusted.
The “present” was incarnated in the speaker of the parable. It was Jesus who had come from the Father to claim what was rightfully the Father’s. It was Jesus who was being rejected, who would be killed “outside the city gates.” He spoke to the tenants, the chief priests and the Pharisees who “perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” It would be through his suffering, death and resurrection that the “present” would be the time for reclaiming the vineyard for the Father and the shaping of the new possibility that only God could make of this vineyard. The “fertile hill” upon which this vineyard was being built anew was surely none other than Calvary.
That vineyard, then, was to be the “future” of this parable. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” With these words from Psalm 118, equally recognized by all around, just as they had recognized the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus set forth the future: “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”
The vineyard wasn’t destroyed. Instead, it was given to others who would return to the owner the share of the fruits rightfully due him and it’s you and I, the ones gathered here and those others gathered all around the world, who are the “future” which Jesus spoke of. It was for us that he was crucified and rose again. It was for the sake of a kingdom no longer bounded by geographical lines or genealogical heritage, but by faith fostered by the Spirit in the saving death and resurrection of the one who spoke this parable, that the events following the speaking of this parable took place. For Jesus spoke this parable in the very shadow of the cross, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday; during the time between the ecstatic welcoming of the Son of David into the Holy City and the time when the cry “Crucify him” would become the shout with which he was thrown out of the city. There, outside the city gate, death itself would be overcome. There the sin of rejecting this vineyard’s owner would be atoned for and “other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” would be put in charge of this “vineyard on a very fertile hill.”
So how does this parable of Jesus apply to us today in our world some twenty-one centuries later?
We too silence the messengers of God to us, especially when they tell us unpleasant things about our lives. That what we are doing isn’t right. We all have those people who come to us and are honest with us about things which are imperfect in our lives.
The prophets of God in our lives are not usually priests or bishops. Rather, the messengers of God to us are usually must closer and nearer, like a wife, a husband, a child, a parent, a longstanding friend: those who have the willingness to be honest with us.
And deep down inside, we often want to silence the honesty of God’s messengers to us. We’re like the Pharisees in that we want to silence the voices of the messengers of God to us or to our nation, or about our nation. Yes, we often want to silence those messengers from God who tell us the truth about our country and how it’s perceived by our friends and allies as well as our enemies abroad.
We’re to be the channels of God’s care: the way we care and exercise concern for others is the “rent” owed by the tenants: “He looked for justice and for righteousness.” Isaiah said.
These are the fruits which he still looks for when he calls for the rent in his vineyard today. These aren’t outdated ideas. They continue to call us to care for our neighbour in the forms that we call “love.” That is not a sentimentally emotional word about “feeling good” toward our neighbour; about “wishing the best for those who are suffering;” about “warm feelings” toward the needy. The “fruits of the vineyard” have to do with the way we live our lives daily in our various neighbourhoods: in our homes, at work, in our hobbies, in those random chats in the post office or at the bus stop.
Perhaps James was thinking of this parable when he wrote in his letter, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The master still owns the vineyard and we, the church of today, are the ones the welfare of the vineyard has been passed on to. But the servants of the Lord keep coming, asking of us the recognition that God still owns the vineyard and that we are still only the people who have been temporarily entrusted with its care.