(A warning this week: the parable in the Gospel is a difficult one. Read it first, or ask someone to read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
The Gospel reading this Sunday is a continuation from last week's reading. Jesus still talks in the Temple in Jerusalem with the chief priests and elders of the people who challenge his authority. Jesus tells them another parable, once again about a landowner and his vineyard.
‘There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he 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. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 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. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’
As he often does, Jesus ends the parable with a question. The chief priests answer it and so does Jesus himself. He says,
‘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.’
This parable can seem very dark, and it can seem like it does not apply to us today. However, we know that Gospel means Good News, so there has to be good news for us here somewhere. We also know that the Bible is the Living Word of God, so it must apply to us today. So let's think.
Let's consider the landowner. What do we know about him? He plants a vineyard and protects it with a fence. The vineyard must be important to him. He digs a wine-press, which tells us that the landowner plans to squash the grapes to make wine. We remember from two weeks ago, that in the Bible, wine is a sign of joy. In this parable we do not hear about wine being made, so we know that the plan is not yet complete. We might ask ourselves, then, is the parable not yet finished?
What else does the landowner do? He builds a watch-tower, leases the vineyard to tenants, and leaves. It does not seem to be part of the plan that the landowner will do the work of caring for the grapevines and harvesting the grapes. He gives that work to tenants. Because he later asks for the produce–the grapes–we know that the landowner must be planning to make the wine himself. The landowner will take the fruit and produce the joy.
The landowner leases the vineyard. Leasing means that the vineyard still belongs to the landowner. Everything that the vineyard produces belongs to him, too. The plan to make wine remains his plan. But he has shared the work with tenants.
Perhaps, though, the tenants forget that the grapes do not belong to them. Do they forget that they do everything for the landowner, so that one day there will be so much wine? So that one day there will be so much joy?
They must forget because they abuse and kill every messenger that the landowner sends, including the landowner's son. This is the dark part of the parable that can make us think this parable is not meant for us. Since this is a parable about the Kingdom of God, we ask ourselves who the landowner might be like, and if he is who we think he is, who would the landowner's son be?
This parable seems to be only for the chief priests and elders of the people, for Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers–because we do not kill Jesus, do we?
Or could we be missing the point?
Jesus says that the Kingdom of God will be given to those who produce the fruit of the kingdom. Still there is no mention of wine. The plan is not yet complete.
Who produces the fruit of the kingdom? We know that the landowner invites each one of us–chief priests and elders, Pilate and soldiers, children and adults–into the vineyard to work for the landowner. The landowner gives each of us unique gifts and talents that we can use to produce fruit. We have to ask ourselves, what gifts and talents has the landowner given us? What choices will we make today that will help build the kingdom of God?
We notice that even the wicked tenants produce fruit, but they forget that the fruit does not belong to them. Since we do not want to be like these tenants, we need to be careful. When we do good work, who is it for? Is it for our glory, or for the glory of God? How easily we might forget that our talents and our successes, even the work that we do, are all gift. From God, for God. How easily we might slip into thinking how good we are, congratulating ourselves on being better than others, and forget all about the landowner. Yikes.
Will we hand over the fruit of our work to God so that wine can be made, or will we try to keep it for ourselves? How will we write the end to this unfinished parable?
And where is the Good News?
The Good News lies, perhaps, in two places: the watch-tower and the wine-press.
As tenants in the vineyard, who do we watch for from that watch-tower?
Would the landowner have built it if he did not mean to come back?
Of course not!
And what does he come back to do? What is the wine-press for?
The wine-press is the promise of joy, of great blessings that will come, when God takes all of our efforts and converts them into wine–enough and more than enough, for now and forever.