What comes to mind when you hear the word vineyard used in scripture? Do you think of those beautiful ads in glossy magazines with rolling vineyards in Napa or France, shot in the golden light of autumn? Do you think of those wine harvest scenes with extended gathered table set in the vineyards, tables laden with wine, cheese, olives, salami, baguettes? Those images are meant to evoke simpler times, deeper community, and a profound relationship between the winegrower, their products, the land, and their consumers. Most of those ads are produced for huge conglomerates that own thousands of acres of grape vines across the world. The wines they make are designed for the tastes of the consumers, and the workers who toil away in these vineyards work long hours in substandard conditions for low pay.
I wasn’t going to tell you this story. After talking about visiting Assisi in my sermon last week, I’m afraid you will begin to think that my sermons will all refer to our recent travels, but as I was writing these words, I was reminded of a magical afternoon we spent in a tiny family-run vineyard last May on the slopes of Mt. Etna. The grandmother of the family prepared as a lovely lunch as we sampled the wines. The vineyard itself is very old, its vines pre-phylloxera. They were protected by Etna’s lava flow. And the grandmother is the only one who can tell what varietals the vines are. Traditionally Sicilian vineyards had vines of different varieties interspersed among each other. She knew every inch of the vineyard, every vine. And her generosity and openness to strangers was amazing.
Still, when we read about vineyards in scripture, our minds wander off to those commercials or ads, to the beautiful and peaceful vines and the bountiful harvests. Two weeks ago, in my sermon on the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, or the parable of the Generous Landowner as I called it, I drew a contrast between the economy of the Vineyard and the economy of the marketplace. Today’s parable shares with that earlier one the unexpected behavior of a generous landowner and I will get to that in a minute but first, there’s one other piece of the vineyard puzzle, or perhaps another row of grapevines, that I would like to husband.
I mentioned the importance of the image of the vineyard throughout Hebrew and Christian scripture. Perhaps the best example of this importance is another little story, from Isaiah 5, often called the song of the vineyard. In it, God speaks about the vineyard God planted, built a watchtower in it, dug a wine vat as well, but the choice that God planted bore no fruit and instead wild grapes came up. As a result, God promised to destroy that vineyard. In Isaiah, the vineyard clearly refers to Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah and promises destruction for the people’s unfaithfulness.
Against that biblical backdrop, the parable Jesus tells is an allegory directly pointed out the Jewish religious leadership of his time. Remember, it is the last week of Jesus’ life. He has entered Jerusalem triumphantly, staging some sort of protest, and entered the temple and turned over the moneychangers’ tables. This parable is among those things Matthew places on the very next day, when Jesus and his disciples return to the temple.
It’s an allegory of Israel, the prophets who were rejected, the religious establishment, and Jesus who was killed. That certainly seems to be what Matthew wants us to get out of the story, especially given that places it while Jesus is teaching in the Temple, confronting the religious authorities.
I wonder whether we’re able to extricate the parable from that context of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. There’s another layer of context and conflict to which we must also be attentive. That is the context in which the gospel writer was writing. Although Matthew is deeply imbued with first-century Judaism, it is refracted through the reality of conflict between the nascent Christian community in which Matthew is writing, and the developing Rabbinic Judaism from which Matthew’s group has come.
Can we listen to the parable with new ears, with ears not full of the noise of Jewish-Christian conflict? Can we lay aside the implication that the parable is predicting Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Jewish authorities (but remember it was Rome, not the chief priests, who crucified Jesus). Can we instead look at this story of a vineyard, workers, and a landowner and ask what good news, what proclamation of the kingdom, what message does this have for us?
To get at these questions, which should be at the heart of every reading of every parable, we need to hear the story again, in its bareness and simplicity, with none of the additions provided by Matthew. In fact, several versions of the parable exist, in Mark, Luke, even in the Gospel of Thomas. Comparing these different versions suggests that Matthew makes the story more anti-Jewish, by changing the single servant mentioned by Mark into groups of servants, by saying that they killed the servants (not merely beating them), and by having Jesus ask the question at the end to which the chief priests and elders reply.
As I’ve suggested before, one of the keys to exploring the meaning of parables is to focus on behavior or actions in them that don’t seem to make sense. In this parable, there’s a wealth of such inexplicable, even irrational behavior. First, the tenants. They refuse to play by the rules; they refuse to acknowledge what they owe the landowner. They abuse not one, but two sets of servants who come to collect what is owed. Then, to top it off, they kill the landowner’s own son when he comes. All of that is outrageous. Even more ridiculous and offensive is their reason for killing the son, that they will inherit the vineyard. I don’t know of any inheritance law in human history that would allow for that.
The other odd behavior is that of the landowner himself. If the tenants treated his servants so abominably, why on earth would he think they would respect his son? One could search for clues to the meaning of this parable in either group’s behavior.
But there’s something else. In Mark’s version of the parable, the statement that the landowner will come, seize the vineyard, kill the tenants, and let it out to someone else is put in Jesus’ mouth. In Matthew, those words are the response of Jesus’ listeners to his question, “what will the landowner do?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “he will kill those wretches… and later Matthew adds, the chief priests and the elders knew Jesus was talking about them in these parables.
I think there’s another possibility here. What if we let Jesus ask the question of us, leaving the answer for us to ponder? How would we go about formulating our response?
Let me offer some hints about how an open question might help us rethink the whole story. What do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, enterprising, even generous. He plants a vineyard, builds a winepress, and rents the whole thing out. At the end of the year, he wants his share of the proceeds from the vineyard. We don’t know, we can’t tell from the story whether he’s demanding too much, but I think there’s a clue in the fact that he isn’t closely watching what’s going on back in the vineyard. He’s not overly concerned about ensuring high profits and low costs, he’s not micro-managing.
So, I ask again, what do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, generous, and patient. Given all that, what will he do next? The answer given in the gospel reading is an answer from the perspective of a dog-eat-dog worldview. I get mine. I get yours, too, unless you are stronger than me. We could translate the story very easily into our own economy and world
But are those the values of the reign of God? Is that what Jesus preached? What does Jesus teach in Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy, if someone asks you for a cloak, give him your coat as well.
How might we answer the question: What would the landowner do, from this set of values, trying to live out the values of the Reign of God? We might want to look at it from the perspective of the landowner, to imagine what we might, or ought to do, in a similar situation. But I’m not sure that’s the appropriate angle to take.
I think that on one level, the question Jesus asks challenges us to reconsider how we think about God. Can we imagine a God whose grace and mercy extend to the unimaginable, beyond our wildest dreams? Can we imagine a God so creative, so patient as the landowner in the parable? A God who has made us stewards of a lovely and bountiful vineyard, and asks us to give back to God, what is owed, and to be as generous to others as God has been generous to us? We are entering our stewardship season. This year we are focusing on generosity. We see God’s generosity at work in the parables of the vineyard; We see God’s generosity and creativity at work in our lives and in our world. Can we see ourselves in God’s vineyard, grateful for all that God has given us, grateful for the opportunity to be as generous and as creative as God is. Can we imagine ourselves as generous and creative as that God?