Reading this story in Matthew is somewhat like reading the newspaper these days, don’t you think? This story could fit right in there with all the other stories we read everyday about anger and paybacks; killings and beatings and greed and vengeance. We have a hard time thinking of Jesus telling such a story and yet, here it is, right here in the pages of our Bible, right out of the mouth of Jesus.
What are we to do with such a story? The first thing we need to do is to realize that this is what is called an allegory. This is a story, not about a real situation, but a story where the characters and the setting and the actions stand for something or someone else. The landowner in our story is God. The tenants are the people of
God planted a vineyard. Fertile soil, beautiful grounds, healthy vines, rain in abundance, sunshine and darkness. God protected the vineyard with a fence built around it and a watchtower to help keep predators out. God dug a wine press in it to be used when the harvest came in. The tenants, if they were diligent and watchful and took good care of the vineyard, could help the vines to produce good and succulent grapes when the time was ripe. And though the tenants were allowed to keep some of the produce, they also were required to share the bounty with the landowner, with God.
Now the Israelites had been loaned a beautiful vineyard by God, the Promised Land. God helped them to keep the land secure so that they and their children could live in prosperity and faithfulness. The people, if they were diligent and watchful in abiding by God’s word, would produce among themselves good and succulent fruit when the time was ripe: the fruit of faithfulness and service to God; the fruit of justice and kindness to one another and to the stranger; the fruit of love and hospitality and forgiveness for all neighbors, not just the ones they liked. They were to share with God the bounty of their land and of their livelihoods and of their love.
You and I have been loaned a beautiful vineyard by God. We have a beautiful earth to share; one with good soil and healthy vines and plants and trees of all types. We are blessed with both rain and heat from the sun; with both light and darkness; with animals and living things of all sorts. Beauty surrounds us wherever we go. God has loaned us families and friends who love us; blessed us with the loan of gifts and talents of many kinds that allow us to work; to study; to think and dream; to feel pain and joy; to run and accomplish; to love and care about others.
God surrounds us with loving strength and power. God watches over us with faithfulness and compassion; grace and forgiveness. God gives us ways to use our gifts and to be fruitful in many ways. In return, we are to be diligent and watchful in abiding by God’s word. We are to care for and tend all God has loaned us so that our fruits will be succulent and sweet to God’s taste. We are to share our bounty with God by sharing our bounty with our neighbors. Unfortunately, that’s where the violence comes in.
You see, the tenants of the vineyard have other ideas. They don’t want to be working for someone else. They don’t want to share what they have with the landowner. In fact they want to own the land themselves. They don’t like the idea of the land belonging to someone other than themselves, and so when the servants show up to claim what belongs to the landowner, the scene turns violent. Suddenly the order of the day is beating and stoning and killing.
The Israelites didn’t want to share the produce of their promised land either. Those who thought they owned the property and who had the power wanted to keep the power. Those who were leaders in both government and in religion wanted to keep their wealth and their positions of privilege. They didn’t want to listen to the prophets sent by God, because the prophets made them look at how they were withholding the bounty of the land from God by withholding it from the poor and the widow. They didn’t want to hear that God was angry with them and so they mistreated the prophets. Beating and imprisoning, ostracizing and ridiculing became the order of the day for the Israelites in power.
You and I like to think that we own things. We believe in ownership. That’s the American way isn’t it? Own your own land, your own home, your own car, your own spouse, your own children, your own everything into infinity. The more we own the better we seem to feel. These are the values we’ve been taught over and over again. They are the values we live by most of the time. But these values are not the values of God’s kingdom.
We’ve had prophets since the days of the Israelites, and what have we done to them? Look back through our history from Martin Luther King, to Mahatma Gandhi back all the way to John the Baptist. We have never stopped rejecting the prophets. Generation after generation we’ve tried to stop prophets from speaking for God. We’ve never wanted to hear what God had to say through them, and so violence erupts and the prophet is imprisoned or stoned or ostracized or killed.
The landowner finally, in desperation sent the son to the vineyard. The landowner hoped that the tenants would respect and listen to the son. The son came to remind the tenants that ownership was a game they were playing, that they were guests on the earth, not rulers, and that there was good news in that, because being guests relieved them of certain responsibilities they were not equipped to handle. Those responsibilities included deciding who got to be rich and who got to be poor and who got to work and who did not and whose claims to full humanity should be honored and whose should be denied.
The son came to remind the tenants that as guests of a loving host, they were to love one another. They were to live together in relationships of care. They were to figure out together how everyone could be fed and have what was necessary for life because they lived as guests of a God who provided enough for everyone.
We all know what happened to the son. He was taken out of the vineyard and killed. After Jesus finished his story he asked the Priests and Elders, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes what will he do to those tenants?” They said to Jesus, “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.”
We think the same way. By our logic the story should have ended with a massacre, with the tenants slaughtered and the vineyard turned over to new workers. By our logic, the story should end violently – kill for kill, hard punishment for rebel sin, the Old Testament theory of an eye for an eye. The human story, too, should have ended with the wrath of God; instead there’s a resurrection. As Jesus says to the Priests and Elders, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The son we killed off has been raised up the Lord of all, a gift to us tenants that never ceases giving life and light, from a gracious, forgiving God.
We celebrate that resurrection and that Lord of all who is with us at each and every Divine Liturgy, and the pinnacle of that celebration is to receive Him in communion. With faith and love we approach the chalice for His Body and Blood; as you come forward this day for communion, keep in mind the ultimate Sacrifice made for us, a fraction of God’s incredible mercy and grace toward us. Our willingness to receive Him in the Eucharist is a reminder to us that we tend the vineyard and its riches on someone else’s behalf. We are to return to God the bounty of our labor and love. That is the kingdom way and the only way to end the violence. Amen.