"Tenants in the Vineyard"

Proper 22.A.20
Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Martin Luther once said, sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. This is one of those weeks. Let’s face it, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants is most-likely not on the list of anyone’s favorite things Jesus said. And yet, I believe with a bit of patience, and the willingness to look closer, there is plenty of Good News to be found. This morning I want to convince you that what first appears to be a ghastly parable, is, in truth, a story leading us to a hopeful message of a generous and loving God.

The first thing we notice is that this week, like last, we find ourselves in the vineyard. Now, Vineyards are a hopeful metaphor in the Bible. When Noah gets to dry land, what’s the first thing he does? Well, after God establishes a covenant with him, Noah plans a vineyard. In fact, the text doesn’t even tell us Noah built a house! For all we know, he lived in the ark! So, why plant a vineyard? Why not wheat, barley or corn? Certainly, these crops are more practical for the short term. Presumably Noah would need things to eat right away. Vineyards, however, take a long time, and a good deal of hard work to cultivate.

So, here's the thing—you don’t plant a vineyard unless you are in it for the long haul. For immediate needs you plant wheat and pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” When people are planning on living long in the land, that’s when they plant a vineyard. A vineyard is a sign (it’s a symbol) of hope, stability and belief in the future. In the parlance of the Bible, the world is a vineyard and we are but laborers in it.

So here we are, in the vineyard—and what a place it is. Unlike most parables, where our Savior is short on details, Jesus is downright elaborate in mentioning the planting of the vineyard, the wall, the winepress, the watchtower. This isn’t some slipshod place where the vines are growing untended. It is a vineyard in which the Owner has made a significant investment. This vineyard has all the hallmarks of what should be a thriving plot of ground. And now we are told: “When the harvest time had come, the owner 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.”

What Jesus is saying is an allusion to the fifth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Here’s what we know. The slaves who get stoned, beaten and killed, they are the prophets. In other words, the people of God aren’t in the habit of treating the messengers of the Most High with kindness and grace. This, we come to see, is a parable about rejection.

The tenants, they want everything for themselves. They reject the owner’s emissaries and servants. Finally, they reject even the heir, the owners only son. In other words, the people of God have decided they can run God’s kingdom without God.

Now, let’s pause and take a moment to look at the audience of this particular parable. It’s the Pharisees. The religious leaders of the day. Here we are told Jesus turns to them and poses this question: “… when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And they reply: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” That, you see, is their answer. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s what they would do. And, if we’re honest, it’s probably our answer as well. For we are fond of proclaiming such pithy words of wisdom such as: “Tit for tat”; “Don’t get mad, get even”; “hit back harder”, aren’t we.

And this, pretty-much, is where Jesus leaves things. With the response of the Pharisees. Oh, but he does make that cryptic comment about the stone which the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone. Just who do you think that is? Of course, it’s Jesus. So, I suppose, if we didn’t have the rest of the Gospel for us to learn from, this would, indeed, be a fairly ghastly parable. But with the cross and resurrection as hindsight, we have a different perspective. And that is that God, the owner and creator of all that is, does send his son into the Vineyard. Jesus, comes to earth and we, in truth, kill him, just as we killed the prophets before him. But the end result isn’t vengeance. It’s forgiveness. It’s not retribution, retaliation or revenge, it’s grace. And this is something which the Pharisees couldn’t understand—and, which, to be perfectly honest, we have difficulty grasping as well. This parable leads us to consider the crucifixion, death and resurrection of our Savior.

This parable is about our rejection and failure of God. But it’s not the end of the story. Instead, this parable leads us to consider how the death of the son of the vineyard owner; the death of God’s Son, isn’t to be followed by vengeance, but by grace. And in this, is a call for us, as tenants of this vineyard; as inhabitants of this world, to accept this grace and return to a right relationship with God.

So, if you’re a wicked tenant (and, let’s face it, we all have our wicked moments) imagine what Good News the Gospel holds for you. While it’s true enough that the world treats prophets and emissaries of the divine cruelly, it’s also true that God’s love and grace triumph in the end. What a relief it is that God’s vision of justice and mercy is not the same as ours.

This parable is an invitation for us to consider what we are doing to ensure that our world lines up with God’s hope for the vineyard in which we live. Because, let’s be honest, if this world is the vineyard of God at this present time in our history, it’s not a particularly pleasant place to be. There’s the death of over a million people worldwide from COVID-19, with more to come; there are wildfires in the west, hurricanes in the south and east; there’s an impending war between Armenia and Azerbaijan which could easily bring Turkey and Russia into the fray. There’s racial tensions in the United States and after this past week with what I think everyone can agree was not what we hoped to see in a presidential debate; and the spread of the corona virus among the president and first lady and their staff; I don’t think anyone can quibble if I say that all of us are deeply concerned about the future of our country.

So, here’s the question. If this is our vineyard, and we are the tenants, what are we doing to make this patch of earth upon which we live a place bearing fruit for the kingdom, fruit which the Bible tells us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness? Each of us can do something. We can demand civility from our leaders, we can work to stem climate change, feed the hungry, deal with issues of racism in an open-minded and open-hearted way; for heaven’s sake, we can wear our masks, and wash our hands to help stop the spread of COVID-19. We can donate to Episcopal Relief and Development to assist those whose lives have been upended by natural disasters. Above all, we can pray.

Rather than seeing this as a parable of judgment; let’s look at it as it is intended to be. This is a parable calling us to repent, to turn, and to treat the vineyard of God as the place God intends—a productive place, bearing fruit for the kingdom. Let’s hear in these words the good news of God, and what’s more, let’s live them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.