Part of the genius of the Gospels is that they teach in parables. Fables, myths, and parables fall into the same category of literary tools that are often called allegories. Allegories stay fresh even as cultures change because they speak in symbols – and symbols have meaning across generations. So, the parables of Jesus are as relevant now as two thousand years ago when Jesus told them. But the price of that relevance is that the meaning is not necessarily plain or obvious… Take for example the parable in this morning’s Gospel. It is a familiar story but what might it have meant when Jesus told it and what might it mean today…
We have a vineyard with its winepress and watch tower, an absentee landowner, a group of difficult tenants, abused servants, and some obligatory priests and pharisees.
It’s not a big leap to see the vineyard as a symbol of our world. The absentee landowner seems pretty clearly to symbolize God, though “absentee landlord” is not a good look. The priests and pharisees are the religious leaders of the time. And then we have difficult tenants and the abused servants – two groups in which I might see myself. But which one?
Matthew is a bit unclear in some of the details, but there is an interesting detail that may sit in the story. Matthew tells us that, at harvest time, the landowner sends servants to collect his produce.
This story is told in variations in other Gospels and in those other versions it’s clear that the landlord is trying to collect a portion of the fruit – the portion due the landowner. But Matthew doesn’t put any qualifiers on it. The landlord sends servants to collect the produce.
There is some reason to believe that Matthew really means all the produce… if we see the landowner as the personification of God then we should conclude that everything truly belongs to God and if the vineyard symbolizes this world, then indeed, God does mean to collect it all – all of us.
But if we are those folks who have worked the vineyard, we would certainly expect our portion. The absentee landlord showing up and demanding everything would be, to say the least, provocative. When these rowdy tenants abuse the landowner’s servants perhaps there are some good reasons. They just want what is normal.
Still, their treatment of the landowner’s agents is appalling. And part of the point of following Jesus is to change what is normal.
I’m still left with a question of where I locate myself in this story – tenant or servant?
Scholars (a group in which I do not locate myself…) observe that the servants, coming as they do in two groups, represent the two categories of Prophets in Hebrew Scripture, the “former” and the “latter”. If we accept this, then at least I’m now left with only the rowdy tenants as my group… I’m not a prophet…
The parable, on one level, is reminding us that God has tried to reach the chosen people with two waves of prophets and has been rejected. So, God goes further, sending the son, Jesus, as a sort of a last-ditch attempt to reach those rowdy tenants who are also God’s chosen people. And the parable reminds us that the outcome is the same: rejection in a violent and scandalous way. One wonders if God has come to regret his choice of chosen people…
Matthew puts the burden for this rejection on the tenants and no one else. This is the same tenant group in which, by default, I have located myself. Oops…
If we were to read this parable in the way it may have been understood in Matthew’s time, then it is a story of Israel’s repeated disobedience and of God’s long-suffering patience finally running out. The first chosen people are replaced by a new chosen people – the followers of Jesus. The rowdy tenants are replaced with new and improved tenants. This is the group in which I want to locate myself… But are the new tenants, us, really any better? Let’s look a little more at those rowdy, nasty tenants.
It seems, from the little we know, that they did a pretty good job of running the vineyard. It has been planted and tended and, in fairly short order, seems to be bearing good fruit. I’m going by what is not said… there is nothing bad said about how the vineyard is being managed.
Were Jesus’ disciples all that much of an improvement over the previous tenants? Maybe. But the Gospels are full of stories of the disciples being thick headed deniers.
The power of parables, as I said at the start, is that they stay relevant even as the world around is transformed. We can speculate about what this story may have meant in Matthew’s time, or what Jesus may have had in mind when he told the story. But we don’t live then…
What is this parable saying to us now?
One thing that jumps out at me is Matthew’s subtle implication that the landlord claims all the fruit. I find this disturbing – it seems unjust. But that is based on the understanding that I have to watch out for myself, even at the expense of others. That is not God’s way. And this vineyard is God’s world.
In the Old Testament paradigm, a tenth of the produce was to be offered to God. But in the Gospel paradigm, everything is to be offered to God. That doesn’t mean God is about to pull up in a great big truck and take it all away… it means we must be prepared to share the produce with all of God’s creatures. That is what God does.
I don’t know that I perfectly understand it, but I do know that we live in a world that throws away tons of food while people starve… We can do better. In this parable Jesus calls us to seek that better way. None of us are entitled to hoard God’s bounty. If we lived in a world where all receive according to their need, God’s bounty would be abundant.
The bad tenants are fighting to preserve what they perceive as rightfully, exclusively theirs. If we can get past believing in our right to exclusive use of God’s earth, we might be able to build a world that more closely resembles God’s Kingdom.
I think we also have to ask ourselves if we do any better than those nasty tenants at listening to God’s prophets. God’s chosen, Israel, ignored the former and latter prophets. How much do we really attend to Jesus? Lots of lip service gets paid. But the Gospels tell us that by our fruits we will be known as followers of Jesus, not by our words… only by our love we can be known as Christians.
Desmond Tutu asked some years ago if being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us. It was a question that was popular at the time. I think for most of us there actually is quite a bit of evidence. The opportunity which God gives us with each new day is to pile up even more evidence. It is a joyful thing. But that is only part of the story. There is abundant evidence that I am also a faithless and selfish follower of Jesus… I could be convicted of that crime too…
If I truly put myself in the place of those wicked tenants, I can explore the question of why they acted as they did. What would lead me to their behavior?
My immediate answer is greed – they want the produce all to themselves. But if I push a little harder greed gives way to fear – the fear that the landlord will take all the produce and they will be left with nothing. Fear is a powerful, terrible, and ugly motivator.
The Gospel tells us that love drives out fear which, subtly, tells us that fear and love are not compatible. Jesus always calls us to love.
A major storm a few weeks ago has tested us in various ways. How long can we go with the lights off… how long can we go with the water off… How long can we go with the Hemmel en Aarde road closed? Many folks have responded with generosity and a Godly spirit. As the crisis becomes a more distant memory can we retain that generous care for our brothers and sisters?
In my experience, when calamity strikes, we tend to shift from our own private survival to working for the common good. People pitch in, help each other, check on the sick and the vulnerable. It is quite a beautiful thing that grows out of something terrible. We collectively seem to step away from fear and into common humanity. It lasts for a while and then we get back to normal… back to the status quo.
The pharisees in this parable are the protectors of status quo. And Jesus, throughout the Gospels, is the disrupter of status quo. Jesus calls us all to be disrupters of status quo. The great prophetic voices of our age, from Desmond Tutu to Dorothe Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, to George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, and others have all been, to some degree, anarchists. They were unable and unwilling to accept the status quo and spent their lives working to change it.
Fear calls us to seek safety and safety is found in the familiar, the status quo. But in this parable Jesus calls us to disruption. That means letting go of fear and living in faithful love.
The truth is that we will be beloved children of God no matter what. Perhaps I’ll live with less privilege. Perhaps my life will be shortened. But God’s love will never be diminished. And thing that limits my ability to share in God’s love is my own fear.