The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2005
“Hear another parable: There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 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 have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore 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 let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
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 marvelous in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they 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. (from the English Standard Version)
The Rental Fruits of God’s Vineyard
Imagine a business CEO who urges his / her board of directors as well as all subordinates to simply disregard any facts at their disposal, but simply to plan and perform their duties according to the way they feel about something at the moment. If it “feels good” to do this or that, they are just to go ahead and do it.
Imagine a government official who urges all those under her / him to perform their duties according to the whim of the moment – to ask themselves what “feels right” when called upon to act and then do it without further examination or research, regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
Imagine God emotionally attached to the world, yet leaving it to fend for itself. Imagine the Lord feeling sorrow and pity for humankind, but doing nothing other than watching the world fall apart.
Imagine a person going through life being directed by nothing other than sentimental piety regarding God. If a person feels God in what one is doing, that is enough. It doesn’t matter much what one does, so long as one has a warm, fuzzy feeling about God being near. Whether God is near is not of so much importance as whether one feels that God is near. To push the case, if one senses deeply that God doesn’t care much about what one is doing, then it doesn’t much matter what one does.
Such is the religious life of many around us . . . and maybe even among us!
It is quite apparent to anyone – whether a religious person or a person of the world – that the first two “imaginations” are pure hogwash. No business or government can be conducted with any chance of success or survival merely on the basis of the feelings and emotions of those who run the business or the civic affairs of the world. In business and in government, not to speak of daily life, one must deal with and make decisions on the basis of reality, not of feelings alone; on the basis of the facts that are at hand through which evaluations and decisions can be reasonably made.
For some reason, though, what seems apparent to anyone about what is necessary for the performance of a business or the running of a government – or even for everyday decision making – becomes quite unapparent to many when it comes to their religious life. On that level of life facts and events often become unimportant – even irrelevant – in favor of feelings and sentimental emotions.
Jesus’ parable serving as the Gospel for today insists quite otherwise, however! It is a parable of actions – not of feelings . . . of reality – not of phantasy.
The “Grounding” of This Parable In the Prophet Isaiah
Nobody around Jesus at the time when he spoke this parable heard it without realizing that Jesus’ basic point of reference lay in 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, enlarging on Isaiah’s version. Isaiah very explicitly says, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.”
Isaiah is not speaking about a lack of sentimental piety in Israel when he tells this parable. He is 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!” In the Hebrew there is an intense wordplay between the words “justice” and “bloodshed,” between “righteousness” and “outcry.” Isaiah’s condemnation of Israel for its lack of justice and righteousness is harsh and filled with irony, as though he were saying, “What should have been is not to be found, and there is no good reason whatever for it to have been lost. But you have lost it.” “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.” I.e., Israel’s evil actions or failure to act do not simply make God feel badly about what is happening. He is getting ready to do something about it.
Those are hard words . . . words of concrete action and a will determined to alter the course of events. They are not mere words of anger, but the promise of angry and harsh reaction to the faithlessness of his people.
Jesus’ Amplification of Isaiah’s Parable
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, however.
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 that which is already a profitable enterprise. There is quite evidently an agreement between the two that the future profits are to be divided in some fashion between the renters and the owner.
In the ensuing events it is 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 and his adamant interference in what they considered their own affairs. They declare their entitlement to the vineyard that once belonged to the owner asking for his rent.
It seems implausible that the owner would put up for long with such insufferable treatment of the servants 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 honor the son. Mark accents this unthinkable action of the Father by saying, “He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them. . . “ Luke adds a pathetic note: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’” Jesus himself says only a short time after he speaks this parable, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not. See, your house is left to you desolate.” (Matt. 23:37, 38 ESV)
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? Is it not 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.”
Someone (I think it was Flannery O’Connor) once said, “Religion is about a harsh and dreadful love.” So it is with this story. This is a love so enduring that the Father sends his servants out to collect the rent time after time, only to have his servants rebuffed and even killed. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reports it this way: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release. . . Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.” (Heb. 11:35b-37a ESV) Finally he sends his son, “his beloved,” into the dangerous territory of rebel tenants. And he, too, is killed. Is this love not a harsh one so far as his son is concerned? Is it not dreadful to think of a Father who would send his son as a sacrificial lamb into the midst of murderous would-be owners of a land that is not theirs at all, but who will go to any length to claim it anyway? Surely this love of the Father is “harsh and dreadful,” but it is also redeeming and wonderful. It is astonishing that the Father, with his immeasurable patience, would give up his beloved for the sake of the vineyard that was already his and which had been taken over by rebel tenants! The parable gives us the smallest glimpse into the grace of God!
The Summary in the Parable
The 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. He it was who had come from the Father to claim that which was rightfully the Father’s. He it was 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 of his creation. 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 marvelous 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.”
“God forbid!” they said. “Thank God!” we say. For the vineyard was not destroyed. It was rather given to others who would return to the owner the share of the fruits rightfully due him.
For it is we – you and I – the ones gathered here, who are the “future” of which Jesus spoke! It was for us that he was crucified and risen from the dead! It was for the sake of a kingdom no longer bounded by geographical lines or genealogical heritage, but by faith engendered 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 glad acclamations welcoming 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 put to death. 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.”
Now the Question: “What Will We Do With This Vineyard?”
So we are back to where we started when we implicitly asked, “Is it enough to simply have a ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ for God; merely to ‘know that God is near because we feel him to be near;’ to be content with an emotionally satisfying sense that ‘surely God must be enough like us that so long as we are reasonably good and moral people he will be satisfied’?”
The parable shouts a mighty “no” as an answer to questions like these. To begin with, God was not satisfied to simply sit in the heavens, looking with a kindly, grandfatherly gaze upon his poor wayward creatures, idly sitting by, casually looking on, feeling badly while we took over the vineyard and did with it what we willed. The Lord did not merely “love” us in a theoretical, virtually disinterested way, keeping an arms-length distance from us. Not at all! God was deeply involved with his vineyard at every turn and through all to whom he had entrusted it. The divine patience was extended virtually to the breaking point. Even then the Father pressed the issue through his Son, sending him into the arena of death for the sake of his vineyard. This is no place for sentimental emotion. This is where to “the rubber hits the road.” This is where whathappens becomes the vital center of the relationship between God and those who care for his vineyard. Sentimental feelings must retreat into the background before the harsh reality of the cross of him who was thrown out of the vineyard and killed. From it hope and salvation flow freely to all who put their trust in this Crucified One who will, in turn, emerge victorious over death on the third day. The harsh reality becomes our glorious salvation.
“The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” With these words Jesus places the challenge squarely before his hearers as to whether they will take up their cross in turn and follow him . . or whether they will “stumble” over this cross and be crushed by their unbelief. At this point we are led by the words of Isaiah calling us to be the channels of God’s care for us by the way we care and exercise concern for others as the “rent” owed by the tenants: “He looked for justice and for righteousness.” These are the fruits for which God looked in the vineyard of which Isaiah spoke. (Is. 5)
These are the fruits for which he looks when he calls for the rent in his vineyard today. These are not outdated words. They continue to call us to care for our neighbor in the forms that we call “love.” That is not a sentimentally emotional word about “feeling good” toward our neighbor; 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 homes, at our work, in our neighborhood, over against those whose lives have been torn apart and devastated by hurricanes and sicknesses and poverty and troubles of every sort. Perhaps James was thinking of this parable when he wrote, “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.” (James 2:14-17 ESV)
The master still owns the vineyard, you know. And we, the church of today, are the ones to whom the welfare of the vineyard has been passed on. We enjoy some of the profits from that vineyard in our daily life of eating and sleeping, in being clothed and in being cared for in more than abundant fashion. 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.
Indeed, it is the Son himself who comes to ask of us that which the Father expects of those who care for his vineyard: justice for the needy and righteousness in our daily life. The Father’s ownership of this vineyard called for a “harsh and dreadful love” in reclaiming this usurped estate through his Son. He simply asks of us a glad and joyful return on his investment when the Son comes to claim the rental fruits of the vineyard. Those rental fruits will not be our feelings. He will be seeking the fruits of justice and righteousness, for that is what grows in the vineyard of him whom we call our Master.