A Vineyard Was..., Proper 22 (A) - 1996

September 29, 1996

"My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He plowed it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines." A vineyard was then, is now, and will always be great deal of work. Cultivated grapevines and must be carefully pruned and trained to grow in a position that makes the grapes accessible to the people who hope to gather them. Wild grapes are very difficult to harvest. Pest of all sorts, from the little foxes of the Song of Solomon to the little jackrabbit of West Texas, find the carefully cultivated vines delicious, and therefore they must be protected. These days the owner of a vineyard can invest in nifty plastic plant protectors. Then and now, a vineyard demands extensive preparation and constant vigilance.

Today's Gospel tells a story of a very special place, a beautiful, well-cared for vineyard Jesus' parable is obviously a midrash or an exposition of Isaiah's song. This parable appears not only here in Matthew but also in the twelfth chapter of Mark and the twentieth chapter of Luke. It is a story of God's great love for us, but like many parables, it teaches a tough lesson.

When I consider a story like this, I like to think about it from the viewpoint of the various participants in the drama. The first person in this story is the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard owner is not a mere title holder to the property but rather its creator. He cleared away the stones and planted the vines. He built the hedge and watchtower and dug the winepress. There was nothing more to do for the vineyard than what the owner had done.

[I have never planted a perfect vineyard, but I have baked an almost perfect homemade pizza. I mixed and kneaded the dough. I peeled and seeded the homegrown tomatoes. I grated three kinds of cheese. When I took my almost perfect pizza out of the oven, it looked and smelled just wonderful. For at least three or four minutes all was right with the world and I reveled in my creation.

Perhaps you have had a similar moment of such satisfaction. I assume that the vineyard owner did. The owner then turn the perfect vineyard over to a bunch of less-than-perfect tenants. I turned my perfect pizza over to a couple of of ten-year-olds. It was pronounced a poor substitute for Little Caesar's and stripped of its fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers and abandoned in around seven minutes. My labor, like that of the vineyard owner, did not yield the fruits that I had anticipated.]

When the owner is denied the fruit of the vineyard, we meet the next characters in the story, his servants. The servants are essentially messengers. The message they bring is not well received. Perhaps they should have worn their "Don't shoot--I'm just the messenger" T-shirts. Those of us who have ever worked in some supervisory position can certainly identify with these poor folk. They have a big responsibility but only a small amount of authority. [As a high school teacher, enforcing such rules as "no hats on heads" and "no loitering in the hallways" I felt that I was basically asked to speak loudly and carry an itty bitty stick. Though I've never been stoned or beaten I sometimes felt pretty battered on Friday afternoons, especially if there was a pep rally.]

The owner responds by sending the next character, a person of authority, his own son. At this point I would like to offer some sympathy to a group of people who have often acted on behalf of their parents in dealings with disobedient and often downright stubborn underlings. All of you older siblings have probably already realized that I am talking about you. I feel for you--for every time you had to accompany a younger family member to a public restroom or retrieve that person from the streets of your neighborhood or keep him/her/them happy and quiet. And that doesn't even begin to account for all the times you took the blame for what someone else started in the first place. Being your brother's keeper is a very tough job, and like Rodney Dangerfield, you get no respect.

This brings us to the tenants, or "wicked husbandmen" as they are sometimes called I'd rather not identify with this group, but I'm afraid it is not that difficult. They decided that they were not getting what they wanted and took it upon themselves to change the deal. You can call them greedy and lazy, or you can call them aggressive and efficient. I have many times on many occasions left something undone in hope that someone else would take care of it and I just wouldn't have too. There are dishes in my kitchen sink right now and the last time I went to Wal-Mart I did not return my cart to the cart corral.

Those are not terrible sins (at least I hope they aren't, because if I'm wrong about that I could be in big trouble) but they are a lot like what the tenants did. I have plenty of excuses for my behavior, you all can understand that I was in a hurry and I just don't have time and it's not my job. I'm sure the tenants felt that they were doing all the work. Why shouldn't they receive all the rewards?

Well now that we've looked at this story from several different vantage points, it is time to state the obvious. The owner and creator of the vineyard is God. The servants are his messengers, the prophets (talk about being without honor) and the son is Jesus Christ. You and I, the listeners, are the tenants in the vineyard. The last hypothetical question was posed by the devil.

This parable asks us, as Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard asked Judah and Jesus asked the leaders of Israel, to pass judgment upon ourselves. This is not easy, but it is a necessary step toward redemption. Take stock of your priorities. Look at how you spend your time and money.

Stop now and look around you, where ever you are. You are in the vineyard, and God has chosen you to care for it. Your vineyard may not have a single grapevine and it may have suffered through some difficult tenancies. It is still God's good creation. You are called by Him to be His steward, He trusts you and will sustain you . Your response is up to you.


Christopher Sikkema