April 1, 2012
Rev. John Watts
VIOLENCE IN THE VINEYARD
We’re back in the vineyard this morning. I’m not sure it’s the same vineyard. It’s certainly not the same parable. A lot has happened to Jesus between the telling of these two parables.
Last week we were reading from the beginning of Matthew 20. This week we read from the end of Matthew 21. In between, at the beginning of chapter 21, we read about Palm Sunday. That’s today, when Jesus rides triumphantly intoJerusalemon the back of a donkey. Jesus today sets into motion the series of events that will result in his being nailed to a cross on Friday of this week. One of these events is the telling of this morning’s vineyard parable.
Here’s the sequence of events. First, there’s the Palm Sunday parade. Then Jesus ruins the party atmosphere by turning over some tables in the temple. Next he heals a few people, has some nice things to say about the children who are still singing their “hosannas”, and then he calls it a day. He spends the night inBethany, just outsideJerusalem.
The next day is Monday. Jesus walks back intoJerusalemand on the way he curses a fig tree. This is one of the stranger passages in the Bible. There’s no fruit on this fig tree so Jesus says, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And instantly the tree begins to wither. Next Jesus returns to the temple and gets into an argument with the religious leaders over his authority to do things like turn over tables in the temple.
It’s to those same religious leaders in the temple on Monday morning that Jesus tells three parables. He begins with a parable about two sons. He concludes with a parable about a marriage feast, the one we looked at three weeks ago. The middle parable is the one we’re going to be looking at this morning.
The owner and builder of a vineyard goes away and lets the vineyard out to tenants. This was a typical arrangement. Nothing unusual here at all. The tenants would manage the vineyard. They were rescued from poverty and given a job. The harder they worked the more profitable this job could be. Of course, some of the fruit would go to the owner.
The owner sends three servants to collect the fruit. They are attacked. So vicious is the attack, that only one of the three survives. He manages to get back to the owner and let him know what has happened. The owner responds by sending a larger delegation of servants. They too are violently assaulted. Those who stagger home are more dead than alive. So what does the owner do now? He’s running out of servants. At least he’s running out of servants willing to go. He’s starting to get the idea that this strategy of sending servants isn’t working.
So what does he do? He sends his son. And yes, as he might have expected, his son is killed.
This is unlike any parable Jesus ever told. It’s an awful parable. I’ve said parables are story pictures. This is a picture you don’t want to look at. It’s just too awful. And what’s most awful is that this is the most realistic parable Jesus told. Everything here represents real people and real events. This parable really is a short course in Bible history.
The vineyard owner is God. The vineyard is God’s creation. We are the tenants. We are the ones who God allows to live here and work here and enjoy all that God has provided. But there are certain ground rules. The servants who come to remind us of these ground rules are God’s prophets — Moses, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, John the Baptist. They are not received with respect. At best they are ignored. At worst they are killed. And so the vineyard owner sends his son. That’s Jesus. And in this parable, told by Jesus on the Monday before Good Friday, Jesus dies. Jesus is predicting his own death.
This is an amazing parable. This is also an awful parable. It’s really a parable about the death of God. It’s about God’s children rejecting God’s love, taking over God’s creation, claiming it for themselves, declaring their independence, and then putting to death God’s own flesh and blood.
The only contemporary analogy I can think of that captures the horror of this parable would be children who murder their parents. That’s how awful this parable really is.
Jesus just the day before was given a hero’s reception in a Palm Sunday parade. How quickly things have changed. He doesn’t tell a parable about a son entering the vineyard and being greeted with palm branches and hosannas. Jesus knew how this week would end.
There’s a word that I’m hearing used more than it used to be used. That word is “epic”. Epic means “surpassing the usual or ordinary in size or scope”. The problem with overusing a word like that is that if everything is epic then nothing is epic. The word loses its meaning. But the word “epic” was invented for just such a parable as this one. This is no usual, ordinary parable. This parable captures in a few words the biggest of the big themes of God’s dealings with humankind.
For one, we find here God’s providence. The root of the word providence is “provide”. God has provided for us everything. As it says in the hymn, “All I have needed thy hand hath provided.” We get to live in God’s beautiful and bountiful vineyard because God provides for us.
We’re receiving an offering forHaititoday. I have never been toHaiti. Those who have describe a place that even before the earthquake was experiencing poverty and deprivation that is difficult for us to imagine. Imagine something that won’t happen. Imagine someone who owns a vacation home in the mountains ofHaiti. It’s not a cabin. It’s a luxurious mansion. Imagine one of those families in Port-au-Prince that has nothing, being given the keys and invited to move in, to make themselves at home. It’s stocked with food and equipped with every creature comfort known to exist. It’s theirs to use as long as they need it.
God is like that wealthy vacation homeowner. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). We who have nothing are given all that we need and more. That’s God’s providence.
Second, we see in this parable our freedom. The vineyard owner goes away into another country. He’s not hovering over us, directing our every move. We are free to manage God’s vineyard in a manner that would please him or in a manner that would grieve him. It’s our call. If we want to we can bring in a bulldozer, pave over the vineyard, and build an adult entertainment business right in the middle of the parking lot. God won’t stop us. We are free to take what God has given us and use it for the highest and the best or for the lowest and the worst. We are free to ridicule and abuse God’s prophets who call us to account for the ways we are misusing our freedom. There is no collar God puts around our necks so that we will get a zap of electricity each time we are pushing the limits of acceptable behavior. We are free moral agents. We are perfectly free to make a real mess of things here on earth if we choose to. Again, this is a most realistic parable.
We have freedom, but the third thing this parable tells us is that we have responsibility. We are accountable for what we do with what we have been given. We are not owners. We are tenants. It may feel like we can do anything we want. The vineyard owner is in a far country and if we want to we can convince ourselves that there really is no vineyard owner. There is no God. There are no limits on our freedom. But the truth is, there are. God who loves us so much to let us live in his vineyard loves us too much to let us live any old way in his vineyard. There are consequences for misusing our freedom. Those consequences are sometimes delayed so it might appear that we are getting away with something. But the day of accounting will come. There will be a day when God’s messengers show up at our door to find out what we’ve done with the vineyard that should have produced a bumper crop.
The fourth thing we see in this parable is God’s love. Even through all the horror and the violence of this awful parable, we see God’s love shining brightly. In spite of everything, God keeps sending messengers. They just keep on coming. We are still free. We can welcome these messengers or, as in this parable, we can not welcome them. But they are sent because God loves us.
I wonder, what messengers has God sent to you? Have you welcomed them with open arms? Or have you resented and resisted what they were trying to tell you?
God’s love is seen in those messengers. And God’s love is especially seen in the fact that those messengers keep coming. That’s really the most remarkable feature in this parable. The vineyard owner doesn’t retaliate when his messengers are treated so horribly. He just keeps sending more messengers. Imagine that you are the owner of that vacation home inHaiti. You ask friends who happen to be traveling toHaitiif they wouldn’t mind stopping by your place to see how things are working out with your invited guests. One of your friends is beaten, one is stoned, one is killed. What do you do now? The last thing you would do would be to send more friends to try again. And the very last thing you would do — this would be unimaginable — would be to send your own child.
And yet God in this parable keeps trying, over and over and over again, to reach his rebellious children. Patiently, so patiently it sounds ridiculous, God keeps giving us chance after chance after chance. None of us has patience like that. Not even close. We would have long since gone way beyond our capacity to forgive. But not God. God’s love just won’t quit.
That’s what this Holy Week, this holiest week of the year, is all about. God sends his Son. And since we believe in the Trinity, that really means God sends himself, to suffer and to die at the hands of people like us who have rejected his love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Everything else has failed. This is it. This is a last gasp attempt to save us. If we believe in him “we will not perish but have eternal life”. If we reject him, we will not have eternal life. We will perish. It’s as simple as that.
Because eventually even God’s love reaches its limit. That’s the fifth and final big idea in this parable. Judgment. God keeps sending messengers. God keeps reaching out to us. God keeps giving us chances — second, third, fourth, fifth chances. But eventually even God gets to the last chance. This is it. It would appear that’s where we are as this parable ends.
But it’s interesting that Jesus leaves the ending open. We get to write the ending. The parable ends not with a conclusion but with a question: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The obvious answer is the one given by the religious authorities. They are the ones Jesus is talking to. They don’t hesitate in their answer. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.” And the words are no sooner out of their mouths than they must have realized that they had just called for their own deaths. Because they were the evil tenants in this parable. Jesus had tricked them. His parables often do that. We think he’s pointing at someone else but he’s really pointing at us.
The religious leaders gave the obvious answer. The parable ends in God’s judgment. But did they give the right answer? Did they give the answer Jesus would have given? We each have to answer that question for ourselves. The end of the parable is not a conclusion. It’s a question. What will the vineyard owner do?
I’ve thought about this question a long time. That’s one of the advantages preachers have. So here, for what it might be worth, is the way I would answer the question at the end of this parable. The owner of the vineyard does not kill them even after they have killed his son. He forgives them. So where, you might ask, is the judgment in that? The judgment comes in the simple fact that we don’t live on this earth forever. As long as we are alive, judgment is never final. But the day we die is judgment day for us. The day we die is the last chance we will ever have to accept or to reject God’s love.
Remember that fig tree Jesus cursed the same morning he told this parable? That was so out of character. That sounds so unlike Jesus. The people who put together the lectionary of scriptures that we are supposed to read in worship made an editorial decision to leave this scripture out. I don’t blame them. This is a scripture about judgment, not about love, and we’d rather hear about love, not about judgment. But what we want to hear and what we need to hear may be two different things.
God’s love when it is accepted into our lives produces fruit. If there is no fruit, it’s a pretty good sign that God’s love has not yet penetrated the root system of our lives. Fruit trees that produce no fruit are just taking up valuable real estate where another tree could be planted. Still, God keeps loving and loving and loving, but eventually it’s too late. Eventually it’s judgment day. As much as it grieves the heart of God, there will be some from whom theKingdomofGodwill be taken away and given to those producing the fruits thereof.
O God, we are judged by this parable. It’s not about others
whose evil is easy to see and to condemn. Not really. It’s
about us. For we have misused this great vineyard you have
entrusted to us. We have misused the freedom that is ours.
We have mistreated those who most need our love. We have
condemned those who are most difficult to love. Forgive us,
dear God. Even as you have forgiven us before, forgive us
again, and may your forgiveness change us. May this
communion meal to which you have invited us all be the life-
giving nutrient that brings forth the fruit for which we were created.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.