LUKE 20, 9-18
God is good! (All the time.) About two months ago, Father Pruett invited me to come for these nights of prayer and reflection, and I said: “Well tell me what you want me to talk about, or we are both in danger of being disappointed.” Then he began to talk to me for about ten minutes and my eyes glazed over. I am certain that he was saying something very important and deeply spiritual, but it was at the end of a long dinner, and I realized I should not have asked the question. Surely you have all been there: that moment when you ask a question and then suddenly realize you should have kept quiet! I think I interrupted him at some point when I realized I should have just said “Yes” or “No”. So when he took a breath I said: “Send a scripture passage for each night, and I’ll work on it.” This seemed to satisfy him, and I went home wondering what I had gotten myself into. A week later we were talking on the phone and I reminded him I was waiting for the scripture texts, and he said: “I’ll call you tomorrow.” He did not call. However, he did send me a text message with the three passages we are going to pray over and reflect upon now through Wednesday. When I looked at them, I began to wish I had said: “No, I’m too busy.” However that would have been a lie because I am retired, and I am not too busy – not too busy to do anything, because God is good!
The next day I called him and I asked why he had chosen the three parables that will form our reflection. That was another mistake. I know he told me a lot of things. I was hoping he would tell me what to say, leaving me nothing to do tonight except reap his wisdom; but I hung up the phone thinking again: “I should have said ‘No’.”
However, after beginning to explore these parables, I began to have a good time, learn something, and pray about what is said to us, and quite frankly expected of us all. This parable from Luke began to be very interesting to me. I had to do a lot of study and reading about it because as I realized early on, I have never preached or studied this parable before. Only the last part of the passage just proclaimed is found in our Sunday readings every third year. At this point, I perked up. Something new! Bring it on! God is good.
Now a few years ago, a family living in a home in West Palm Beach, Florida told a film crew that it was OK to use the front lawn as a set for filming of an episode of a TV series. They knew that cars would be crashing violently in front of the house. While the front yard was being destroyed, the owner of the home was tipped off and called from New York, demanding to know what was happening to his house. It seems that the people living in the house were only tenants who had no right to allow the property to be destroyed while the camera rolled. Some awful mistakes happen when those who are tenants act as if they are owners. The question being raised here is: Who owns the vineyard? If we think that we own the vineyard, there is going to be trouble.
When Luke tells this story, Jesus has entered Jerusalem. It is the first day of his last week. He has just cleansed the Temple, and the authorities are very angry about it. The chief priests and scribes have just had a confrontation with him about this matter and his authority, and they do not like this rabbi coming into the Temple and, in some sense, claiming the Temple for God.
As the parable goes, the situation was quite common. Palestine was a very troubled place. Absentee landlords were many, and it was not at all unusual for a man to leave out his ground and go stay in some place more comfortable and safe. When that was done, there were three ways to pay the rent. It could be either a fixed sum of money, or an agreed proportion of the crop, or a definite amount of produce that had nothing to do with the size of the harvest. There is nothing here to indicate that the landlord was unreasonable or unkind. In fact when Matthew and Mark tell the same story, the landlord has been very generous and careful with improvements which would have made life safer and easier for the tenants by putting a wall and digging a cistern. His patience with the tenants is remarkable, making three attempts to get what was rightly his. When this parable is first proposed, Palestine was a very explosive place, filled with unrest and labor troubles. The situation described could very easily have happened. Tenants did exactly what is suggested. In the absence of the owner, those who stayed and worked often became increasingly protective of the place, and it is not hard to imagine their thinking: “It’s mine. I earned it.” Killing off the only heir was not completely irrational since possession was determined by occupancy and the tenants may hope that the owner will give up after the death of his son.
We would misunderstand the parable if we thought of these tenant farmers as poor sharecroppers who were being abused by a demanding owner. Rather, they were greatly privileged to be able to work in the owner’s vineyard. They did not have to plant it; the owner did that. They simply entered into his vineyard, where they could work and make a sufficient living for themselves and their families. The owner was not a greedy tyrant, who stood over them with a whip, driving them mercilessly. He freely entrusted the vineyard to them and let them work it as they saw fit. But for these privileges, they owed him a certain amount of fruit. When we begin to think about this parable, it would make sense to wonder just who is this about? The traditional title for this parable is “The Wicked Tenants”. However, they are not really the center of attention here. While Jesus may have been speaking to the people, he was telling them about his Father. If you just look at the verbs, which is something I always like to do with the scriptures, the story is filled with verbs that describe the activity of the owner: he let out the vineyard, he sent, he sent, and finally sends his beloved son. Then he disappears and the attention shifts to the tenants. When the owner reappears in the parable his actions are described in the future tense. The action of the owner is what drives the parable. “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” That is the focus of this parable.
It is the owner who acts in a surprising way. Once the tenants beat up the first servant, we get it. It is the owner who holds this story in suspense, and it is the owner who is gradually revealed to the point that at the end of the parable, the question is a good one: “What will he do?” “What kind of person is this?” As the parable comes to a climax, there are two reflections thrown into contrast: the owner’s reflection “Surely they will respect my son” and the tenant’s reflection “the inheritance will be ours.” Suddenly we can get it: this reveals a God who really is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness as the Old Testament prophets and psalms describe.
Maybe this parable needs a new title: “The Patient Vineyard Owner.” This look at the parable engages us in answering the question of how we think of God rather than seeing this as an attack on those who rejected and killed Jesus. What we get here is an image of God longing for a response, waiting for the harvest from the tenants. Other tenants rejected God’s offer which is a self-judgment, and they are responsible for the consequences of their own behavior. Jesus speaks to the people in the presence of the Chief Priests and the Scribes: the “leaders of the people”. They reject him and forfeit what was a privileged place enjoyed by the Jewish people. Now do not misunderstand me. This is not a condemnation of the Jews. It is a condemnation of the leadership. By failing to accept the beloved Son and failing to produce fruits from the vineyard, the privilege passes on to others. Although not named in this passage, these others were Apostles who were also Jews, and in the words of Jesus they would rule the nations of Israel. Now we are the tenants who have been privileged to find a place in this wonderful, fruitful, vineyard confronted by a God who continually seeks us and waits for the produce of this vineyard.
The parable story for us is not over. One of the supreme tests of life is how we have used our privileges, and they are many. Oscar Wilde has a terrible kind of parable like this one. Jesus was walking through the streets of a city. In an open courtyard, Jesus saw a young man feasting gluttonously and growing drunk with wine. “You man,” said Jesus, “why do you live like that?” “I was a leper,” said the young man, “and you cleansed me. How else should I live?” Jesus went on, and he saw a young girl clad with many jewels, wearing a very revealing skirt and blouse with way too much make-up; and after her came a young man with the eyes of a hunter. “Young man,” said Jesus, “why do you look at that girl like that?” “I was blind,” said the young man, “and you opened my eyes. How else should I look?” “Daughter,” said Jesus to the girl, “why do you live like this?” “I was a sinner,” she said, “and you forgave me. How else should I live?” Here are three people who received priceless gifts from God and used them like this.
We live in an age that has every privilege, and more privilege and opportunity than any generation before us could have ever imagined. We live in an age that has discovered more of the secrets of power than any other age. We have more leisure time than any generation in history, and with it what do we pursue, games and entertainment, or spiritual things that last and have meaning beyond ourselves? How then are we to use these privileges, knowing that we are nothing more than tenants in this vineyard that has been planted by God?
The parable upon which we have reflected tonight is also a parable about freedom. It is significant, at least to me, that after the owner had planted the vineyard, he went away to another country. It is as if he says: “I have given you this job and this responsibility; now I am not going to interfere; run it your own way.” The argument regarding fate and free-will is an old one that continues on and on. It may be that on strictly logical grounds it cannot be solved. The fact remains however that our instinct is to be free. Every time we criticize someone we assume that they might have acted otherwise. Every time we feel regret or remorse it is because we feel that we might have taken some more honorable course of action. There can be no such thing as goodness if we are not free. Goodness lies in the choice between the higher and the lower thing. Some writer once laid down the difference between fate and destiny. Fate is what we are compelled to do; destiny is what we are meant to do.
We have a destiny, we are not fated. What we are meant to do is put ourselves on God’s side in this world and bring forth a harvest from this vineyard so extravagantly planted by a God who has thrown the seeds everywhere. The season in which we find ourselves right now is the season to begin the harvest and the time to remember whose vineyard this is. There is more to come on Tuesday and on Wednesday. God has more to reveal to us, and there is time to pray again, to listen, to wonder, and to grow in holiness and in faith.