Reverend Linda A. Crowder
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.Luke 20:9-19
And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to
tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant
to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants
beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat
and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This
one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I
will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they
said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And
they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard
do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When
they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is
this that is written:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived
that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.
I once went to a clergy conference about time management. We were trying to learn to better prioritize our time, so that the normal emergencies and regular responsibilities that go with our unusual vocation don’t just create chaos in our lives, and the lives of those around us. It can be a bit of a challenge. So we were given a paper with a grid on in and asked to sort out things that were urgent from things that were not urgent, and to further separate out things that were important from things that were not important.
It is pretty easy to think of things that are urgent and important. Someone is in the hospital with a sudden serious medical condition. The youth group meeting is getting loud enough to create a problem with the neighbors. The church is on fire.
Not urgent/important isn’t too hard, either. Someone who is homebound with a chronic illness needs to be visited. Schedule within a few days. A gift has been given to purchase new vestments. Arrange a meeting with interested parties as soon as is convenient for everyone involved. It is Monday, a sermon needs to be ready for Sunday. This priority changes, of course if it is Saturday night!
Important/not urgent is easy. Some of these things you actually want to do. Like read that stack of theological books you have collected over the years. Or organize your library so that you can find every single one of those important books quickly and easily. But, that fact that these tasks have remained undone for years indicates that in fact you don’t think that they really are all that important.
It is harder to think of things that are urgent, but not important. Should there be any? I don’t know. But..
Everything that we just read in today’s readings feels both urgent and important. This Fifth Sunday of Lent, traditionally known as Passion Sunday, is the last Sunday before Palm Sunday. Lent is coming to an end, and with it, our time to prepare, one more time for the soul-shaking experiences of Holy Week and Easter only one more week away.
So, taking a close look at the Gospel reading, we have to back up a bit to figure out where we are, and why things are so urgent. We a just a little bit out of step here with our customary liturgical time. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a colt to shouts of Hosanna, and the waving of Palms. We will, of course remember that next week on Palm Sunday, but for today, assume that it has already happened. So once in Jerusalem, Jesus knows that his time is short and that there is still a lot that needs to be done. He looks at Jerusalem, the site of the Temple, the destination of holiday pilgrimage, the very center of the Jewish world – and he weeps. Jerusalem does not know him, and it will soon see its own destruction at the hands of the Romans. Not only does the city fail to recognize Jesus, but the Temple is defiled by those who are more interested in business than in prayer – and so Jesus drives them away. And then sits down in the temple and begins teaching “as if he owned the place”.
So, it’s not hard to understand that the Scribes and priests who were supposed to be taking care of the temple, might be concerned to find out just where this Jesus has come by the authority to come into town in a parade of kingly symbolism and attack the finely-balanced little society that functions around the temple. And that is exactly what the scribes and priest ask Jesus, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority?” And Jesus tells a story:
“A man planted a vineyard…
The scribes and the chief priests are supposed to see themselves, as the tenants in the vineyard. These tenants, of course, are unwilling to keep their end of a bargain. They don’t want to pay their rent, in the form of part of the produce of the land, and they are willing to commit violence in order to hang on to what rightfully belongs to the landowner.
Worse yet, of course, these wicked tenants are willing to kill the landowner’s son and heir in the mistaken belief that in so doing they will somehow gain control of the land. Crazy thinking. Why would anyone leave anything to the murderer of his son? But then it takes some pretty deluded thinking to go around killing people just to get control of a piece of land. But, Jesus affirms, the landlord is still in charge, and the tenants will be thrown out of the vineyard so that the vineyard can be leased to other, hopefully more-reliable tenants. And the scribes and the chief priests understood that this parable was about them, so they were determined to harm Jesus.
But, in answer to the original question of Jesus’ authority, the tenants – or the scribes- have denied the authority of the owner of the field – God to send his assistants – prophets and then his son – Jesus into the vineyard to do his work. Who gave Jesus his authority – God of course, and those who don’t recognize this – like the stubborn leadership in the temple will eventually “fall on the cornerstone” that is Jesus.
Traditionally, this parable has been understood by the Church as an allegory about Israel. Because the leaders of Israel, the “wicked tenants of the vineyard” didn’t heed the calls of the prophets , that is the first three rent collectors, to repent and follow God’s desires for them, the vineyard will be taken from them, and given to others. After the crucifixion and resurrection, the early Church, naturally, came to understand that the vineyard, that is the state of being God’s “chosen people” has been given to Christians.
Surely Jesus does mean a harsh criticism of the Jewish leaders of his time. They are interfering with his important mission. He has wept over the fate of Jerusalem, and these are her leaders. But it is probably not helpful for us to dwell on this exclusivist interpretation of the parable for very long, because if we do we will probably decide that that is all there is to see in the story. And we will miss another important opportunity.
That is the opportunity to rename this parable and ask it to challenge us, rather than just to let us enjoy some kind of self-satisfied conviction that as Christians, we are somehow the “good guys” of this parable. So, to take the emphasis off the chief priest and scribes, let’s first rename this story. Instead of calling it the “Parable of the Wicked Tenants”, let’s call it “The Parable of the Twice-given Vineyard”.
There was a garden a long, long time ago. And in that garden everything was lovely. Because God made it and gave it to two people. So they could care for it. And follow instructions. And enjoy a really good life. But they didn’t. And they had to leave the garden and never come back.
But the vineyard we are talking about today is different. This vineyard was good. And then it was not. And then there was hope its redemption!
Because this parable is not only, or perhaps not even mostly, about the history of Israel, or about the history of Christianity. It is about the history of each of us. Each of us is one tenant in the vineyard of God’s world. Given a mission to fulfill. Our faithful work in the vineyard often yields much fruit. And that work is often very satisfying to us in ways both material and spiritual. And that is good. The workers in the vineyard of the parable are asked, not to turn over everything they have produced, but merely to pay rent, as has been previously agreed between themselves and their landlord. All they have to do is remember that the land that they occupy is not their own. And realize that the landlord’s grace has been an essential part of the great successes they have experienced. And to fashion their response to the landowner accordingly.
But we tenants have short memories sometimes. And we conveniently forget that God, the Great Landowner, is always in charge. And that’s when we start interfering with the way things need to be in the vineyard. And innocent bystanders, like the rent collectors, get hurt through no fault of their own. And the vineyard becomes a dangerous place to be instead of the hopeful and productive garden that the world was made to be in the first place.
And that’s why the landowner finally sent his son into this confused vineyard. Hoping that we would listen to him. And that we would finally know that God is in charge. It took a crucifixion and a resurrection and the permanent presence of the Holy Spirit, but God has finally gotten our attention at least some of the time.
Hear, then the parable, this way. We are the tenants, and we are the others to whom the vineyard has been given. We have received as a free gift the vineyard that others tried to gain by violence. By God’s grace, the vineyard is twice given. Because we know the Gospel and have experienced it for ourselves, we know God’s love and boundless grace. But now come the final questions. If we are the others to whom the vineyard has been given, what will we do with it? Will we respond to God’s calling to serve His purposes in that twice-given vineyard? If so, what does obedience require of us today?