Rev. Richard Eslinger
Jesus has been in a tension-filled argument with the powers that be in Jerusalem. They demand to know by what authority he speaks these things, about God’s people, about God’s reign, and about himself. So Jesus now replies, “Hear another parable.” It begins in much the same way as did old Isaiah’s prophecy, about a vineyard owner who had such wonderful plans for a vineyard. It was carefully planted, a hedge was placed around it, a winepress dug, and a watchtower built. Tenants were leased to care for the vineyard and, with these matters accomplished, the owner went away on a journey. And as in Isaiah’s prophetic tale, trouble comes to the vineyard, serious trouble. But this time, the problem is not that of wild, sour grapes thwarting the owner’s intention. As a matter of fact, in the Lord’s parable, a good harvest is right around the corner. The vines promise an abundant and succulent vintage. It won’t be long now. So the owner sends servants to receive the produce, and then the trouble erupts. The tenants had conspired to keep the harvest for themselves, and they mistreated the servants, even to the point of death by stoning. Hearing of this, the owner sends other servants who are treated in the same way. The owner finally concludes that he must send his son, thinking, “They will respect my son.” Instead, the tenants now see the opportunity not only to take this harvest but to have the vineyard, too. They seize the son in order to seize the vineyard. They kill him outside the vineyard. So the great intentions of the owner have been abused by the tenants with a conspiracy involving assault, theft, and murder. What seemed so good in the beginning has become a season in which hatred, jealousy, and death are the harvest. Trouble had come to the vineyard.
Now, however, it seems that these troubles have been mostly resolved. As St. Matthew reports Jesus’ words, the vineyard has been leased to other tenants. And over the centuries, this transition in tenancy has seemed clear to those of us baptized in Christ. As one biblical scholar titled it, this is “The Parable of Israel’s Rejection of Jesus.”* So the church has mostly regarded the problems in the vineyard as belonging to someone else—the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem and, indeed, all of Israel. The new tenants? Why they are us. We’re now working in the Lord’s vineyard, working with diligence and care. Troubles are now in the past tense and we Christian folk are happily taking care of the vineyard, waiting for the harvest. Yet, there is a kind of over-confidence that can infect those who regard themselves as God’s new co-workers. That attitude, a kind of “tenants’ syndrome,” was the target of a song in the Broadway musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Always hoped that I'd be an apostle
Knew that I would make it if I tried,…
And ironically, this “tenants’ syndrome” can strike us precisely when we think we’re doing the Lord’s will and working for the harvest with the best. But we find out that when we come to the conviction that all is as it should be here in our vineyard, that’s when we’re most vulnerable. Remember the horrors of hurricane Katrina? In the aftermath of that devastation, churches sent Katrina relief teams to the Gulf Coast to work on the hugely needed cleanup and rebuilding of flood-damaged houses. Many of these teams were housed in what had once been a church camp and conference center right on the Gulf Coast. The wooden buildings had all been wiped away by the wind and the tidal surge, but the brick buildings remained and became the dormitories and cafeteria for the relief workers. Things went along smoothly at first, but the volunteer staff began hearing from the visitors about the quality of the sandwiches provided for lunch at the work sites and the lack of good snacks. One day, as the volunteers came to the hall for breakfast, they were greeted by a big chalk board with a message scrolled across it: “This is not about you,” it said. The “tenants’ syndrome” had worked its way even into this outpost of relief in the aftermath of such vast destruction. Perhaps for the more perceptive members of the relief teams, a light bulb went on in their heads: “That message, it’s for us,…it’s about us!” See, this parable of the vineyard is always ready to do its work of reversing who’s in and who’s out, who profits and who doesn’t The syndrome can strike when we least expect it, whenever an attitude of complacency washes over us, when it becomes “my” vineyard and “my” harvest. Then trouble comes rushing back into the vineyard that is Israel.
But that is only the more surface level of the trouble. There is a deeper, more complex and hidden snare that is embedded in this parable. And it, too, lies in wait for us. See, as Jesus invited his opponents to hear another parable he set the time for the owner to send the servants to the vineyard while it was not quite time for the harvest. Strange, this way of organizing the plot. It was when “vintage time drew near” that the servants were sent. So we already know—from Isaiah’s prophetic word and from this parable of the Lord—that the workers in the vineyard are to be about the business of providing produce for the owner. They are to provide the harvest to the owner and, in so doing, are to be about being fruitful themselves. Okay. But here’s the deeper issue. The servants do not come when the harvest is complete and the fruit already turned into the finest wine. No, they surprise the tenants by coming, oddly, when the harvest is near. So now a further complication is coming clear. We tenants are to be fruitful and to produce for the owner of the vineyard whenever the servants appear,…that is the time of fruit-bearing. Maybe that is one of the reasons the first tenants turned so ugly and behaved so violently. They got caught in what suddenly was for them, “harvest time.” “If only the owner had waited for the harvest,” they might have muttered, “things would have been different.” But no. Harvest time is when the servants come.
For some parishes, “the servants” come in the form of new immigrants from Hispanic lands and to be fruitful is to provide Spanish-language Masses and English as a Second Language classes. Some members (the tenants) complain that the parish is not yet “ready” for the new ministries and that resources are unavailable. But the time for harvest has come!
Other churches—some are those celebrity focused mega-churches—are perplexed by an “in the front door, out the back” flow of worshippers. Studies are made, but no one notices the servants who have already moved on to communities where the sacramental life is vibrant and spiritual formation is bearing fruit. A crisis of harvest time is now coming for such “successful” churches.
And in parish after parish, there are Christians who have been gifted for ministries, lay and ordained, and who are quite content to be present within this vineyard of the Lord. But these gifted and called folks have through this or that means, managed to put off this serious fruit-bearing season to which they have been called. But then, some servant or other shows up and speaks out loud what has been hidden: “You know, you are called to the priesthood (or “the religious life” or “this lay ministry we have been praying about for so long”). Finally, in the voice of the servant comes the announcement that it is harvest time. The bearing fruit season is now.
So the parable reaches down to a level where all of us live, soul deep. At least now we know that being in the vineyard of our God means that the surprise of harvest-time can come at any time. And this can be unsettling to any who grow comfortable with this vineyard tenancy business.
Of course, the good news is that God’s greatest surprise has come. Yes, the Son was seized, thrown outside the wall, and killed. But while the world thought that he was a “counterfeit” stone, Christ is risen from the dead and become the cornerstone. He lives and reigns forever over his vineyard and all creation. So at the Easter Vigil, we sing: “The stone which the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone, Alleluia!” Here, in this vineyard of our Lord, we feast with him and rejoice in his presence. We are fed, refreshed, called now to be fruitful. Oh, and remember how Isaiah began his prophetic story of the Lord’s vineyard? It began with song:
Let me now sing of my friend,
my friend's song concerning his vineyard.
And it continues with song, our Friend’s song for his vineyard. “Jesus, wine of peace,” we sing. “May we taste your presence, your promise, our future.” **
*Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, trans. David E. Green (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1975), 412.
**David Haas, “Jesus, Wine of Peace,” Gather Comprehensive, 2nd Ed. (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2004), 804.