October 7, 2023 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of vineyards and evil people, which is what we’ve been focused on for what seems like weeks now! One of the things that doesn’t age well with the Bible is how the references to things that were commonplace in society were used as metaphors. Maybe 2000 years ago, everyone knew about vineyards, but now, many of us only know that good grapes make good wine. In fact, there’s a message going around on Facebook attributed to Dead Soul Poetry: “2000 years from now, people will not understand the difference between ‘butt dial’ and ‘booty call’ and this is exactly why the Bible is hard to understand.”
So let’s talk about vineyards for a minute, and then look at today’s Gospel reading. A vineyard is literally a grape plantation, where grapes are grown. Grape vines are weak plants that need support. But once they are supported, they are wild unless they are restrained by a pruning process. They are capable of producing the most valuable fruit, but if they don’t produce, they are worth nothing and, according to Enduring Word, are “fit only for the flames.”
Throughout scripture, Israel is described as a vine that took deep root and filled the land in a way that the variety of Canaanite tribes had not. It grew so strong and secure in the land that it did what was botanically impossible in a literal sense: the vine grew big as the mighty cedars and cast its shadow upon the hills. But God’s chosen people did not fulfill the covenant, resulting in God breaking down the walls of protection, and allowing “all who pass by [to] pluck off its grapes” and “the beasts of the field … [to] graze upon it.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of a landowner who plants a vineyard on his land. He then hires vine-growers to work his vineyard while he is away. When the harvest comes, the vineyard owner sends some slaves to collect its produce, but instead of paying the landowner what was his, the vine-growers beat and kill them. They do the same to the landowner’s son. Jesus asks the priests and elders what will happen to the evil vine-growers when the landowner returns. The text provides a rationale for a divine vengeance taken out violently on the murderous tenants. This story is troubling, with its easy justification of violence.
Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over a portion of the crop. Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and the landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary. In reality, many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of the farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in Jesus’ parable, the landowner would find new tenants without doubt. So, Jesus’ story highlighted the landowner’s patience in this regard. And while this was a parable about the actions of evil tenant farmers, it was also a story about the abused son.
So what’s Jesus saying? I think this parable is less about the violence and more about the care we take for those things and people entrusted to us. We have been given properties and legacies to care for by those who came before us. And while we do not have to – and indeed cannot afford to – operate like we used to, we must remember the past and honor it into our future. We, too, are like those who wish to receive more credit for our labor, as if we “own” the “land.”
Today’s lectionary marks 3 years since I arrived to serve St. Michael & All Angels as Priest in Charge. I wanted to pull out something from the Sunday that I officially started and see how it’s aged.
Where does this all leave us? Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). Friends, we are that people. We are to produce the fruit of the kingdom by tilling the soil so that the seeds that fall onto it can grow and mature. So that those with whom we can share our faith and the Good News of God in Christ can come to know Jesus and express that same love for our world.
As our baptismal covenant tells us, we are to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
We may not be perfect, but God can use us to do the work on earth today. The mission statement here at St. Michael and All Angels is that we “seek to be the light of Christ in the community where all are welcome to experience God’s love and blessings”. Our goal for this coming year will be to figure out ways we can make that happen. And… we might just be able to do God’s work while enjoying some olives or wine, or even fish or pies!
It seems like it's aged pretty well...