Rev. Andy Ferguson
This rich parable can be read in several ways; I want us to consider two approaches:
1. We can read it from beginning to the end;
2. We can read it from the ends to the middle.
I. If we read the parable from Luke 20 from *beginning to end*, then we will begin with the problem and end with the resolution.
1. An owner builds a vineyard and leases it to tenants.
2. He goes away to another country for a long time.
3. At the time of harvest, the owner sends a servant to collect his share of the rent.
4. The tenants beat servant #1.
5. The owner sends servant #2 with the same result.
5b. Then, he sends servant #3. Same thing.
6. Then, the owner sends his son, hoping they will respect his son.
7. Instead of respect, the wicked tenants kill the son, hoping that the old man will die and leave the vineyard abandoned.
8. Then, Jesus asks, “What do you think the owner will do?
9. Well, of course, he will come and clean out the whole lot of them.
10. And, then he will rent the vineyard to better tenants who will give the owner what is due.
11. Finally, Matthew tells us that Jesus said directly to the chief priests and the elders with everyone listening: **17 But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
has become the cornerstone’?
18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 19 When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
Thus, the events leading to the cross are begun.
Reading the parable from the beginning to the ending, points us to the wicked tenants who did not respect the owner of the vineyard. Jesus makes the connection between the wicked tenants and the chief priests and elders easy to see; they are understandably angry.
Reading the parable this way calls up our sense of justice. These tenants had a job; they refused to keep their end of the bargain they had made with the owner. They were clearly in the wrong. Whether we like the boss or not, when we agree to do a job, we all share the conviction that we ought to do our part OR quit and walk away. The tenants, whether we sympathize with them or not, are in the wrong. We all share this sense of justice about the matter.
Actually, Jesus’ parable is more difficult to swallow than that. In the days of Jesus, that area of Galilee was the breadbasket for the whole region. Traveling from Jerusalem north into Galilee is to see the world turn from brown to green. Several years ago, we traveled by bus from Egypt through Israel and into Galilee. Land along the Nile River was green and very productive. From there, across the Sinai Peninsula and then through Israel, the land was desert brown until we reached Galilee. There the desert gave way to green and fruitful fields.
In the days of Jesus, Galilee was largely owned by foreign investors who then leased the land back to local tenant farmers. It was an economic system designed to keep the locals poor and landless. It was a system that took the best produce of Galilee and exported it to the cities for better prices. For Jesus to tell a story about a landowner in Galilee would call up memories of this oppressive economic system. As the parable opens, the landowner does not have anyone’s sympathy.
You can imagine the local people of Galilee, struggling under this economic system, wondering just how strongly those foreign owners want to keep their property. They live a long way off. What would they care if they lost this? Maybe if we beat a few of their bill collectors, they will get the message that we don’t want them around here. It was a daydream that many likely considered but few were willing enough to follow.
As the parable continues, Jesus teases his listeners to reach down to their own sense of justice. Yes, the economic system that leaves the outside owners rich and the people of the land in poverty is harsh. But, we did agree and so must keep our agreement. Grudgingly they would give up their natural loyalties to stand with the owner against the wicked tenants.
C. In this sense, the parable is about *accountability*. Like the landowner, God has a right to expect something of those whom God has blessed.
+ Have you kept the 10 Commandments?
+ Have you loved your neighbor?
+ Have you kept yourself clean?
+ Have you paid your taxes?
+ Have you loved the Lord your God with heart, soul, mind and strength?
Christians, who live under God’s blessings every day, should not hide behind God’s love to do any-old-thing we like. God has expectations of us; and we have expectations of ourselves.
II. There is a 2nd way to read this parable: We can read it from the ends to the middle.
Recall the parable: the owner sent three sets of servants to collect what was due. When each was met with abuse and violence, the owner had to decide what to do. We expect that the owner will respond with overwhelming violence of his own. As the parable says,
“16 He will come and destroy those tenants.”
The word, “destroy” is a strong term.
But, there in the middle, Jesus tells us of an owner who will do the unexpected: He will send his beloved son, confident that they will respect the son. The owner who has every right to respond with destruction against these tenants, makes a conscious choice to respond with the gift of his beloved son. We hear this and recoil at the naiveté of the idea. Either the owner is very stupid or the owner is great of heart. Which do you see?
[QUOTE:] Kenneth Bailey says of this decision: The owner has the right to contact the authorities, who at his request will send a heavily armed company of soldiers to storm the vineyard, arrest the violent men who have mistreated his servants and bring them to justice. The abusing of his servants is an insult to his person, and he is expected, indeed honor bound, to deal with the matter. No anger is mentioned, but it is assumed. The question is, what will he do with the anger generated by the injustice he and his servants have suffered? There are plenty of examples from inside and outside the Bible of what leaders have chosen to do in the face of rebellion (1).
+ When the people of earth lived in wanton sinfulness, God sent a flood to wash away all the sinners and all the results of their sin – Noah and the Ark.
+ When Pharaoh would not let Israel go to freedom, God sent 10 plagues to punish them and change his mind. Disobedience led to punishment.
+ When Israel would not live according to the commandments of God, war and eventual exile was the result. Disobedience led to exile.
+ When the American South seceded from the Union over slavery and the economic system that came with it, Abraham Lincoln led the Civil War that forced them back into the Union. Rebellion was met with force.
Violence and treachery most often get violent punishment in response.
The owner of the vineyard must decide what he will do with the anger generated by this injustice. Will he allow his enemies to dictate the nature of his response? Is further violence the only answer? You can almost sense a painful pause in the middle of the parable as the owner thinks about what he must do (1).
Now, the parable shows us something most unexpected. The owner, in the face of repeated insult and injury, decides that the way to solve this is to send his son -- even at the risk that they will kill him. To everyone’s surprise, the son is sent to the vineyard alone and unarmed. The son goes with no escort, to meet the vicious men who were tensely awaiting his father’s response to their last outrage.
What kind of risky, humiliating thinking is this from the owner? Is this foolish thinking? Or, is this something deeper and more profound that only God can imagine? But more, *is this the character of God?* And does this show us something about the cross? I think it does. The cross of Jesus is how *God straightens things out*. God might have chosen to punish all our sins and wickedness, but God chose the cross instead. As someone said, “He chose the nails.” This is how God straightens things out.
That is what God did when he sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for the world. God was and still is trying to fan the dying embers of us scoundrels’ sense of honor. In Jesus, God took His righteous anger at rebellious humanity and *chose to respond with grace*. We expect violence. We expect God to declare judgment upon our wickedness. This is the way the world works. But, in Christ God chooses grace, which we cannot deserve, hoping that the moment of realization will be a moment when we can freely return to the service of God. The Wicked Tenants when they realized the moment of grace made the other choice; they chose to kill the Son. No coercion; God makes possible this incredible choice, now placed in our hands. When you get it, be prepared to find your hardened heart softened. This kind of love is that moving. Hearing that the owner sent his son in one last attempt to turn the hearts of the tenants speaks to us of God’s desire to deal with our treachery, not with force or destruction, but with grace.
We should go back to the Ten Commandments. They point us toward the Kingdom of God. You and I can keep the Ten Commandments without exception. They are intended for our health and well-being. They remind us where we fall short and where we are frankly rebellious against the will and the intention of God. So, what should God do when we fall short? What should God do when we break the Ten Commandments in our deeds and in our hearts? What should God do when are rebellious? God has every right to respond with punishment. Our prisons, our divorce courts, and our personnel files are filled with the results of punishments.
But, as Jesus teaches in this parable of the Noble Vineyard Owner and as Jesus demonstrates through the broken bread and his death on the cross, *God chooses grace*. Grace in the hope that, when we encounter costly grace, we will respond with honor and loyalty and love. How will you respond to the God who chooses grace?
Think about it. We all know what to expect when people are cruel or mean. We expect the world and God alike to respond with punishment. What is the logic behind God’s incredible decision to respond to the world’s cruelty with the gift of God’s own Son? How does that work? It is no wonder that the Church stands before this parable and declares that God has done something new in Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that the Church proclaims that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.
1. Bailey, Kenneth. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 410ff.