Proper 22A/Ordinary 27A/Pentecost +16
October 2, 2011
Matthew 21: 33-46
Vineyards conjure up bucolic images of the countryside, with tranquil grape arbors inviting passersby to rest in the shade and listen to the bees for a while. However, in the Gospel reading for this week, things are not well in the vineyard. According to the parable presented in Matthew, the vineyard – whose owner was out of the country – has been taken over by the tenants whose job it Is to cultivate the grapes and make the wine. Presumably, the tenants wish to keep the profits from the sale of their fruit and wine all to themselves. If the tenants had merely been greedy, that would have been one thing; but these tenants are just plain wicked: “When the harvest time had come, [the landowner] sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way” (Matt 21:34-36).
In some translation of this parable, the tenants are described as “vinedressers”. Vinedressers are more than just grape farmers. They are experts in the life cycle of each type of grape they cultivate. They know the exact temperature and level of moisture at which their grapes will thrive. They know how to graft grapes onto different vines to create different varieties. They know the subtleties of each grape’s taste and acidity that will affect what kind of wine it will make. So the expertise of these tenants is not in question. This is not a takeover by a bunch of rubes.
However, the tenants’ motives and methods are their undoing. They are in denial of their status as simple tenants. They wish to expropriate something that is not theirs to take. As we saw from last week’s reading, the overarching view of the Hebrew Bible is that “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). There was no such thing as purely individual private property
in Biblical times – wealth existed to benefit the community. Jesus and his listeners would have been familiar with this scripture and would have recognized God as the vineyard owner. In the parable, the landowner finally sends his son to collect the produce, thinking he would be respected. This was the result: “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (vv.38-39). This ending implies that the true heir of the vineyard, the maschiach (the anointed one), is a threat to the tenants, who are so power-obsessed that they will stop at nothing to hang on to their ill-gotten goods.
Vineyards were often used as a metaphor for Israel in the Hebrew Bible. The “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah Chapter 5 would have also been well-known to Jesus’ listeners:
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard” (vv.1-3).
If the vineyard is Israel, then who are the wicked tenants? Well, the Gospel author helps us out by stating, point-blank, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard [Jesus’] parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (vv.45-46). So the wicked tenants – at that time – were the religious elite of Israel. It is also important to note that Israel had no secular state in Biblical times, so the chief priests and Pharisees also wielded a great deal of political and economic power.
This parable is a very pointed one, and one that was a direct challenge to the religious and political authorities of the day – so much so that Jesus was risking arrest by
telling it. Who, then, are Pharisees of today who have taken over God’s vineyard and are willing to use violence to protect their power? Below are a few possibilities, but you are of course more than welcome to add your own:
- Those who use their knowledge of religious law to spread hatred;
- Those who use their position of religious authority to advocate violence;
- Those who use their position of religious power to abuse children – and those who systematically enable that abuse; and
- Those who use their position of religious authority to enrich themselves.
Even though the parable points out that the owner of the vineyard – God – will eventually “put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants …”, this in no way justifies our violence toward them. The punishment of the wicked tenants is in the hands of God – not us. However, we can do our part to take back the vineyard by speaking out against these abuses, making them public, and taking back the name of Christianity from those who would use it for violent, hateful and greed-filled purposes. We can see the faces of those who are attempting to take back the vineyard from secular greed in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, where hundreds have been arrested. We may face abuses, trials and even violence by taking back the vineyard, but the Kingdom of God is at stake.