PROPER 22, A
The parable of the vineyard told by Jesus is rooted in the passage we heard from Isaiah. I want to start there, because part of understanding Jesus is seeing how he changes his source material.
In Isaiah, my beloved, or God builds a vineyard. He does all the proper things to make it flourish – he chose a fertile hill, he dug it up, cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines, built a watchtower, and built a wine vat. Then he asks the people of Jerusalme and Judah, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”
So why did it yield wild grapes? He had done everything properly, yet the vineyard bore bad fruit. So God decides to destroy the vineyard. Isaiah then makes clear that the vineyard represents the house of Israel. When God planted the vineyard he expected justice and instead saw bloodshed. He expected righteousness, but heard a cry.
To understand the parable Jesus tells, it’s important to look at the context in which he tells it. You know how Episcopalians and Catholics are rather notorious for not knowing the Bible. Of course we hear reading from the Bible every week, but we hear the same ones over a three year cycle, which leaves out large portions of the Bible. Likewise, we only hear the Bible in bits and pieces, and if we don’t look at the larger context, it’s all too easy to misunderstand the meaning.
This parable comes right after the ones we heard the last two Sundays. Jesus is teaching in the Temple, the day after throwing out the money changers. He has taken his message into the heart of the Jewish religious establishment. When the chief priests and elders challenged him about his authority he outwitted them. Although other people were undoubtedly gathered about him in the Temple, he is addressing himself to the chief priests and the elders. In other words, this parable of the vineyard is told especially for their benefit. And, of course, that means his audience would know the Isaiah passage too.
In this version of the vineyard story, there are tenants in the vineyard. It’s not directly about what kind of grapes the vines produce. It’s about the tenants who refuse to give the landlord his due, his share of the produce. They mistreat the slaves sent to get the produce. They kill the landlord’s son, in hope of owning for themselves the whole vineyard and all its produce.
Like the Isaiah piece, this parable is often read allegorically. Again, God is the landlord, who has generously furnished the vineyard. The tenants, are not the whole of Israel as in Isaiah, but rather the religious leadership of the people. Even the chief priests and Pharisees realized this, as the reading clearly tells us.
The heart of the message is in this statement of Jesus: “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.”
Unfortunately, this parable was often used to support anti-Jewish sentiment and progroms, taking it to mean that the Jews as a whole people were going to be thrown out and be replaced by the Christians. This is a clear example of the kind of twisting of meaning that can come from proof-texting, where bits of biblical writings are cherry-picked and put together to prove a point. Jesus is clearly addressing the religious leadership, not the whole Jewish nation,
Another thing to notice about this story: it is not Jesus who says the tenants will be put to a miserable death and replaced by good tenants. Those are the words of the chief priests and Pharisees when Jesus asks them what the landlord will do when he arrives at the vineyard. It is after this that Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from YOU.” In other words, the oversight and the leadership positions currently held by the priests and the elders will be given to others.
When we look at the situation in Israel at the time of Jesus, it’s clear that the religious authorities were in cahoots with Rome to maintain order and their own power. Righteousness was defined in terms of purity and the purity codes made it impossible for people who were poor or outcast to be “righteous”. The wealthy were way wealthier than the poor, and most of the land was in fact held by a very few families.
There are numerous parallels to current events in our time, too numerous and discouraging to recount. In the course of the history of the Christian faith, similar failures of leadership abound. While there are exceptions, I must say that I don’t see the same failure in our Episcopal leadership at the present time.
In the coming weeks you will hear more of this discourse by Jesus and more as well from Isaiah. Especially notice next week the description of God’s feast for us.
Although Jesus aimed this parable at the religious leadership of his time, there’s a clear message in it for all of us. God, the landlord, who created the world we inhabit, has given us everything we need to create the kingdom of God.
Let’s be clear. In the kingdom of God, all people are valued equally. Everyone has enough. Although not everyone will have exactly the same amount of stuff or the same gifts, everyone will have enough to live life with dignity. Justice will reign, not only in the courts, but in the economics of the kingdom.
Probably nothing in creation can make us share the same opinions, but we are capable of civil discourse. The rules of kindness and compassion come first. Violence, as a means of solving problems, must disappear. If we cannot root out all evil, we can certainly keep it in its place if enough of us commit to the kingdom of God. When we place God first, before ourselves, before money, before our country or town or tribe, the fruits that God hopes for will follow, including righteousness, justice, and peace.
In the Kingdom of God, all of us would be working for the common good of everyone, knowing that that will create the best world in which each of us can live, and move, and have our being. What better gift could we give our children, than to create a world in which everyone can make the most of their gifts, without fear, without violence, without hate or harassment? That, I believe, is God’s dream for this world.
God won’t make it happen without us, and we can’t make it happen without God. AMEN