Proper 22 (27), Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
4 October 2020
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
There is an allegorical reading of our passage that says that God is the owner of the vineyard, the son is Jesus, and the tenants are Israel.
It is a highly unlikely reading for the one who tells the story also says that he is sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:24)
It is a fateful reading for it has discounted God’s faithfulness which is from everlasting to everlasting, and has appropriated the vineyard to the gentiles, and paved the way for the persecution of Jews.
Finally, it is an unfaithful reading because it assumes that Jesus tells parables to pad us on the back.
So forget that reading.
As I was reading the parable I thought of what it must be like to work for little money for someone who is rich beyond imagination. Of course, if you’re relatively poor, modest wealth will already seem utopian from where you stand. It does not have to be the yacht with the helicopter pad moored at Lonsdale Quay.
I can imagine begrudging the owner his wealth, thinking that his wealth is built on my poverty, and that really I should have a bigger share in his wealth. I may seek my union to negotiate a better contract. Historically, great discrepancies are the stuff that get revolutions started. Just read Tolstoy and Dostoevski and you will understand why the Russian revolution happened.
I wonder if that’s how the tenants were feeling and if that’s what they were thinking.
I was looking at the parable in this way when I thought that the earth and all that is within it is the Lord’s (Ps24:1). And yet we claim a right to its riches, we claim a right to exploit its resources, we pollute the air, the streams, and the oceans, and we say that we must do so for the economy requires it. There is no thought given that the earth may perhaps not be ours but God’s and that if we are going to use it we must do it with reverence and love, for it was entrusted to us with love. Instead, we claim this planet as our inheritance.
And this, I believe, is getting us a little closer to understanding the parable of the wicket tenants.
The tenants lease the vineyard, they irrigate and fertilize the soil, prune the vines, and finally harvest the grapes. When the owner sends servants to collect the rent, they beat and kill the servants. They do not want to pay the rent, after all, they are the ones who did all the work. They do the same to the next servants the master sends. Finally, the owner sends the son. Jesus says that the owner did not expect his son to be harmed. That may be. At least in the sense that the owner was praying to God that his son would not be harmed. Or in the sense, that God loved his son Jesus, and did not want him to be harmed. But he must have known what these tenants were capable of. He must have known.
When Jesus tells a parable he always tells it to us. The word of God is not for our neighbour in the pew, but the word of God that challenges me, that breathes life into me, that calls me from death into life, that word goes out to me.
And so, I am the tenant in the vineyard.
So, what about the punishment?
Now, I don’t know if this is how I must read the parable, but the terrible punishment that is to come upon the tenants, is not decreed by Jesus, but it is chosen by the religious leaders of the day who were too busy being religious that they had room neither for God nor neighbour. It is they who answer Jesus’ question of what the owner of the vineyard will he do to those tenants. They choose their poison.
But the irony is, of course, that Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners, and strange as it sounds, that would have included the religious authorities opposed to Jesus. They might have closed the door to Jesus, but Jesus had not closed the door to them. And so we discover, upon careful reading of the parable, that the tenants, whose desire for the inheritance led them to kill the owner’s son, have in fact received the inheritance, because the paradox of the Gospel is that it is through the death of the son that we will receive the inheritance, it is through the death of the son that we receive life. This is what the owner of the vineyard had known all along, he had never been about maximizing profit and shareholder value, but about redeeming what was lost, and calling home his wayward children.
This makes it clear that this parable is not about the church displacing the Jews as God’s people, rather the church has joined the Jews. This, of course, only clears up a misunderstanding.
Now, it may seem that the inheritance comes free, though only to a point. It is true the tenants never paid the rent, but now that the vineyard is theirs, they will have to all the more. Not that they did not take good care of it before, but if they are really to be heirs, if we are really to be heirs, there are obligations. For we not only inherit the vineyard but also the ministry of the son.
We kill the son and get the inheritance. We become the heirs, sons and daughters, sent into the vineyard, sent into the world, sent to claim the harvest for God. We are heirs not only of the glory, heirs not only of Jesus’ promises, heirs not only of Christ’s riches, but we are also heirs of the son’s mission. We inherit freedom from sin and death; we inherit, too, the responsibility to seek the lost, to proclaim the good news, to be the sacrifice of God re-presented to the world in every age and in every place. Our inheritance is to be killed so that God may claim the world through us who are heirs of God’s only son.
That is what one of our prayers after communion means when it prays “By your Spirit strengthen us to serve all in need and to give ourselves away as bread for the hungry”
That fits in with our visioning, that admittedly was interrupted, but it fits with thinking and asking about what God wants us to do in our community, in our neighbourhood, right here where we live. It fits in with a church that is no longer confined to the walls of the church building but that knows that in Jesus God has redeemed the whole world. May the Holy Spirit remind us every day and hour our inheritance and of our calling.
With thanks to Paula Gilbert, whose sermon ‘Heirs’ helped me understand that the inheritance includes a call. Her sermon can be found in Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time, Eugene, OR 2004 [Cascade Books]