ISAIAH 5:1-7. PHILIPPIANS 4:6-9 MATTHEW 21:33-43
Once again, we listen to a parable. Jesus used a situation that was all too familiar to the people of his day to launch a painful prophecy at the religious leaders and the people.
Israel was in a sad state at the time of Jesus. Roman taxes were high, as were the Temple taxes. There were constant political rumblings among the people, with riots and uprisings surfacing regularly throughout the country – Galilee was one of the hot spots. It wasn’t uncommon for wealthy landowners to rent their properties to tenant farmers while they themselves took refuge outside the country. Rent was sometimes paid in cash but more frequently in a percentage of the harvest.
In the parable, Jesus presents a situation regarding a landowner who turned his property into a vineyard. He put a protective hedge around it, and even built a watchtower to prevent thieves from pillaging the vineyard. The tower could also serve as short-term housing for migrant workers and day laborers. He built a wine press, too. The parable takes place at vintage time when the tenants were to pay the rent by giving a percentage of the wine.
The parable is simple enough. The tenants refused to pay the rent. They beat some of the servants sent to collect the rent, and some they even killed. The landowner in desperation sent his son to them but they dragged him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Everyone listening to the parable would immediately have connected the vineyard with the image of Israel in Psalm 80:9 “You brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove away the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground; it took root and filled the land.”
God expected a return from the vineyard – justice, harmony, love of God and love of neighbor. Throughout Jewish history God sent prophets to Israel pleading with the people to reform, to return to a loving relationship with God. Many of the prophets were rejected by the religious leaders and the people, and some were killed. But the parable easily becomes a prophesy of the day when Jesus will be taken out of the vineyard and handed over to Gentiles to be killed.
Jesus tacks on a final teaching to his parable. It’s from Psalm 118:22. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.” In the psalm the stone represents Israel rejected
by the nations, but essential to God’s plan for the world. Jesus gives a new meaning to the stone; it is himself rejected by the religious leaders. He ends with a grim prophecy. “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
I think if we apply this parable only to the people of Jesus’ day we’re missing the point. We, too, are being reminded of the tremendous trust God has given us to care for faith in Jesus. This faith is our vineyard. We must return the fruit of our faith to God, love for God and our neighbor. This love is meant to transform our lives and our society. We’re expected to be a source of unity and healing, of harmony, community and equality. We’re expected to make a difference. We’re expected to be the cornerstone that assures the building of the kingdom of God in this world.
There is so much that needs attention in our society today, the present threat of fascism, the rise of white supremacy, systemic racism, gender inequality and so much more. American society is ailing. Our mandate is to work in the vineyard, to get our hands dirty, to heal our society – to bring about the kingdom of God through the transformative power of our Christ-like sacrificial love. This is how we’re to manifest our faith in Jesus – by our actions. This is what it means to tend the vineyard of the Lord.