My reflection this morning is based on Matthew 21: 33 – 42.
This is part two of the events that Matthew places in the Temple Courts shortly after Jesus rode that donkey into the city of Jerusalem, the time he was hailed as being the one to deliver the Jews from the oppression of Rome. The rallying cry ‘Hosanna’ – God save us – was an attention gatherer.
The truth of this is evident only a short time after. Jesus enters the Temple and clears out those buying and selling. We recall his words – “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den for thieves.” By being hailed by the poor – the underclass – the children; and then disrupting the commercial activities in the Temple, Jesus now has considerable opposition from both the civil authorities of the day and the religious authorities. This grouping is formidable.
When challenged with the question: by whose authority do you do this? Jesus tells parables. The words used in other places: let those with ears hear, are missing from the script, but are very real in practice.
Last week the Parable of the Two Sons presented images of hope and promise to an oppressed people who were looking to the temple authorities to give them positive images on which to base their here and now. The story that Jesus tells makes it clear, there is every possibility that someone who has refused to listen to God – to hear the gospel imperatives – may yet change their mind; that one’s past actions or current status do not determine one’s future; and that those who may be deemed to be beyond the pale of decent society are never, ever beyond the reach of God. This is Gospel – Good News!
I’m not sure how long after this story is told, that Jesus tells another story. Maybe one follows the other. It’s told in the same location, the Temple precincts. This story is set in a vineyard. The absentee landlord first sends three stewards to collect the rent. The tenants rough up one, kill the second and stone the third. It’s a gruesome account. Then, undeterred, the landlord sends his son. The landlord believes his son will be respected. He too is killed. After telling the story Jesus asks this question: What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenants? The record is that those who heard the question replied: the owner will bring that wicked crowd to a horrible death; and then install others who are respectful.
One interpretation of this parable has been to name the landowner as God and the heir as Jesus; and that Jesus is foretelling his crucifixion, an event to which God will respond with vengeance. This portrays the parable as an ancient saga about a vengeful, judgemental God: something that we may not see as appropriate in our age.
Today is World Communion Sunday. This parable appears not to be about communion, but disunion. The vineyard owner and the workers in the vineyard are engaged in violent conflict – and that’s bad for the grapes. One commentator I read writes: No grapes = no wine = empty cups = no communion.
This commentator also draws attention to the image of vineyards being a hopeful and hope-filled metaphor in the Bible: and suggests that this is what those listening to Jesus would have known. If we go back to Noah – he of Ark fame, what is the first thing that Noah does when he gets to dry land? He makes a covenant with God; and then he plants a vineyard. He doesn’t build a house – perhaps he stays on the Ark – he doesn’t plant food crops so that there is food to eat asap – he plants a vineyard. As we think this through, the vineyard image makes it obvious – now we are finding enough peace, and there’s stability - we can plan for the long haul. For immediate needs we plant wheat and pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, but when people long, hope and dream about the future it’s a vineyard that is to be planted. The vineyard brings new wine! We can believe in the future.
As an aside, can we be in this space post COVID? Will we have enough peace and stability to think this way?
Jesus’ hearers would also have known the stories from their prophetic tradition. The Prophets talk about vineyards when people get greedy and oppress others and build bigger vineyards. The hearers would remember Jezebel – the one who conspired with King Ahab to steal Naboth’s vineyard. Naboth was stoned to death. Further in the Prophetic tradition there’s the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea who condemn economic injustice in these words: “You are devouring the vineyards and throwing people off the land. As a result, your grapes will be blighted, and worms will eat your vines.’ Isaiah really reinforces this view in Isaiah chapter 5, in the Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard. Therefore, the vineyard image would have meant a great deal to Jesus’ hearers.
It is into this knowledge that Jesus speaks. The vineyard in the parable isn’t just yielding wild grapes, the tenants are beating the help and killing the heir. Read: the temple and the priestly class are cooperating with injustice, turning a blind eye to the poor. They were messing up God’s vineyard. The question being asked is: ‘what should be done about the perpetrators of violence and injustice. In this parable, God is not violent and vengeful. The message is that injustice contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Following this thinking then, the heart of what Jesus wants to get at is this: God’s spirit moves to the people who want to bear fruit. God will find people who want to hear “I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me and you will bear much fruit. Again we hear elements of surprise and hope!
In summary, my take for this morning is –
The world is God’s vineyard. The planet itself and all life upon it, the means of production and work, the activity of the church and the lives we are leading, are all part of this vineyard.
If we accept this, perhaps we should evaluate our political climate and ask of ourselves, how will ee cast our votes in the General Election and the two referenda, knowing that we are not only planting for the immediate future, but we’re looking forward to the harvest that is to come.
I pray that we may have this understanding.