Today's gospel passage is quite a challenge. I have found myself wondering how Jesus felt about it as he shared it. It's really not a very nice story!
We start with a prosperous, fruitful vineyard and hear of the unprovoked, unjustified, violent murder of, first slaves, and then the landowner’s own son.
We are, I hope, equally shocked by all the murders? Jesus' audience would probably have felt less shocked about the murder of the slaves. They would have seen their lives as having some value but nothing like the shock factor of the murder of the landowner's own son. And before we condemn their attitudes too quickly, we might ask ourselves if we are yet in a place of valuing all life equally? Does the death of a boatload of migrants, including children, affect us in the same way as the coach crash of a school bus on the M53?
The image of a prosperous vineyard falling to ruin is not a new image to Jesus' audience. The prophet Isaiah and the psalmist have both used this image before to describe the home of the people of Israel being taken from them, the walls crumbling, the plants being overtaken with weeds. This was never a story with a good ending, always a warning. Care for what you have been given and treat it with respect or it will be taken away from you.
It's no wonder that the people consider Jesus to be a prophet. He is bringing them the same warning; these are familiar words. Except the message has changed. The warning now is 'remember'. 'Remember who gave you all that is good. Remember that you are stewards, caretakers of the vineyard. The wealth it generates is not yours, but God's.'
And a question too, so obvious to us, but not perhaps to those there on that day is, 'and when the son comes, sent by the father, to remind you that everything comes from God and is owed to God, when that day comes, how will you respond? Will you kill him too?'
It is unsurprising that the Chief Priests and Pharisees reacted as they did! They were seething with anger against Jesus. There was nothing that they would have liked more than to arrest Jesus and see him put to death. But they weren't the only ones who recognised the story, Jesus was protected by those who thought he should be heard and taken seriously. Who believed he was bringing a warning from God.
So what of us? How are we to hear this parable today? We find particular satisfaction in passages that foretell the great story of our faith, passages we tell ourselves we understand with all to the benefit of hindsight. The son of God came and was put to death and the kingdom was taken from those who had inherited it, and was given to everyone, and 'yes' we should remember that all things come from God and that we owe him everything. Thank goodness we don't have to heed the warning, it has already happened, been acted out! But stop! We claim the resurrection, the story of the stone the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone, as the ongoing story. So too, we must own the condemnation, as the ongoing story.
We are not, and never will be, cured of the misuse of God's creation. The evidence that that has not stopped, is all around us. Nor can we claim that we have stopped taking as our own and failing to share, what belongs to God. We still need to hear, and take seriously, the warning of this passage. Our hope comes from what has changed. No longer is our hope held in belonging to a particular group of people or in how well we manage to live by the rules. Now our hope is held in the Son, the person of Jesus, who lets us off the debt we owe and says 'let's do this differently'. Instead of you trying to give back what doesn't belong to you, why don't we start again? Live in my vineyard, care for it, nurture it, and share the fruits with everyone. Be my gardeners and my managers. Take from the fruit what you need and give the rest away. I trust you. Be generous, give thanks and tell me at the end of time how you got on. Then we can reckon up. How about it?
This is the foundation of our faith, that we are free, forgiven and invited in, tenant farmers of the most wonderful estate, factory bosses of a factory of love that flows like fresh cream. If we don’t give them away the crops will rot, the cream will turn sour and the accounts to be presented at the end of time will stink. We must live by kingdom values of love, compassion, justice and freedom now
- How does this passage make you feel?
- How do you feel about being trusted by God to do the right thing and be generous?