One reads a story like today’s Gospel and it is hard not to be overwhelmed with the violence of it. We can avoid it but the truth is, as we have been reminded so starkly this week in the incident in Los Angeles, we live in a violent world. The reality is- what we hear on the media is just a small amount of what goes on elsewhere.
The setting for this story is in the Jerusalem temple the week before Jesus was crucified- so it’s part of the passion narrative. So, it is good to ask ourselves what might Jesus be up to with his prophetic and very confronting actions such as the cleansing of the temple and these parables we have been hearing last week, this week and next.
The Bible says that he is speaking with the Jewish leadership, but I have little doubt that the disciples are within earshot. In fact, so are the crowds, we know that because the Jewish leadership are restrained by the presence of crowds who thought Jesus was a prophet.
So, the tension is so deep you could cut it and Jesus keeps chipping away.
What is he trying to achieve?
I think we have a clear clue at the end of the passage we heard last week.
Jesus told the chief priests and leaders;
You can be sure that tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you ever will! 32 When John the Baptist showed you how to do right, you would not believe him. But these evil people did believe. And even when you saw what they did, you still would not change your minds and believe.
But let’s not be mistaken here, in speaking as he does to these folk, he is also speaking to his disciples, the crowds and you and I who read the story now. He is aiming at any of us who might be tempted to think and behave like these leaders.
Whilst Israel is and always will be God’s chosen people, these leaders, in fact any of us who are unrelenting in their hardness of heart are being challenged in all of this; even those of us who through the grace of God are grafted into the family of God through the life death and resurrection of Jesus.
What we have in in these passages are insider arguments. That is, one group of Israelites are challenging and confronting another over their theological and social attitudes. Everyone present during the argument are members of the Jewish community; Jesus, his disciples, the crowds and the priests and elders.
What Jesus is doing therefore is arguing with them to get them to change their minds, their very closed and self- centred view of the world. He wants them to change their hardened hearts which violently reject any who they perceive as outsiders.
So, let’s look at the character of his target audience for a moment.
They were educated folk, specialists in Torah, who used their knowledge of it for position and power in the Jewish community. They enjoyed being at the centre of the ‘in’ group. They also enjoyed power, control and authority and used it to shut the door of faith on people who were on the edge like tax collectors and sinners.
These leaders focused on right knowledge, rituals, practices and behaviour, but lacked love, compassion mercy and forgiveness. If they were members of the church it might look like, right belief, right way of reading the bible, as well as the right way of doing worship or liturgy, in such a way that people who were outsiders might be excluded. Such leaders would have a strong sense of ownership over their position and place in the community.
Another purpose in today’s parable, which gives us hope in all of this, is to demonstrate the generosity, mercy and love of the landowner. We see it being acted out in the following ways,
In setting up the vineyard– his own vineyard, the landowner provided all that was needed for it to flourish. The role of the tenant is simply to tend it with care to enable it to bear fruit and then to harvest the fruit for the landowner. The landowner is clearly God and the vineyard; is his people, and I think also his creation. So, God has provided us with everything we could possibly need or want and our role is to care for his creation and each other, so that our lives are productive for the kingdom of God.
The tenants, that is God’s people, are disobedient and violent and refused to give their due to the land-owner, but claimed it all for themselves. When challenged they treated the servants or slaves of the land-owner harshly- killing some and hurting others.
The good news is that the landowner [God] never gave up, never gives up but persists in calling them and us to change our ways, and in the end, he sent his own son [Jesus Christ], who was also killed because of the mistaken understanding that this would give them ownership of the vineyard.
It’s a parable; so the story is ludicrous in many ways. Why if the tenants had been so terrible to the servants, did the landowner think his son would do any better? Why did the tenants think they would own the vineyard if the landowner was still alive?
The underlying theme in the story and teaching is the grace of Christ through the cross.
The elders and Pharisee etc knew that a landowner with tenants like this, would destroy the tenants. But that’s not what Jesus is saying. It’s the logical and true answer to his question in the context, but, while Jesus implies there will be a time when they will be accountable, in fact Jesus’ response is very different.
42 Jesus replied, “You surely know what the Scriptures say,
‘The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone of all. This is something the Lord has done, and it is amazing to us.’
Jesus is the rejected stone and what he is doing is amazing because whilst there is a sense of threat, there is also a door of life and forgiveness through his rejection.
We might like to feel comfortable and sit back and say we’re OK when we hear stories like this, we’re not Jews or Pharisees, but we need to look at ourselves and ask-do we welcome the outsiders, the broken and those who are different to us, because if we don’t then we are probably no better than them- how well do we recognise the generosity and kindness of God? Do we live out of such a place, revealing the kind of love and inclusiveness of Jesus?
Truth is that whilst God calls us to that, the place to begin with, is not right action, but right relationship with Jesus himself. Seeking the reconciliation we need from God, and to be reconciled with the Father, we need to be connected to Jesus and to each other in the power of the Spirit. When we experience and know the gracious and persistent love of God, then we can begin to love as he has loved us.
As God’s people we need each other- we need to work together, to avoid using violence against those who challenge our desires and view of life, like the tenant farmers.
It is so easy to resort to violence, not necessarily physical, but emotional or psychological violence to resist change, or when we can’t get things to work our way. It’s not just big picture social stuff, it’s local and domestic violence and abuse. We do it to each other via gossip, or verbal abuse along with rejection. Jesus is saying in this story, that’s not the way, God’s way is to persist and to keep trying and to love the one we see as our enemy. Keep the doors always open and be attentive- listen to what is really being said and what is really happening.
A little story to illustrate the point, I’m not sure if it’s fully true or not, but as King Hussein of Jordan was a great peacemaker it makes sense and the story makes the point. King Hussein, during his reign at was faced with a political coup lead by his military leaders. The story goes, that instead of seeking protection, he got his own entourage to take him to the headquarters of the military where after he left he told them to leave. He walked in to the place where the leaders were plotting the coup, and said to them, ‘here I am, I will surrender rather than have a war because I do not want my people to suffer’. The response of the leaders was total submission as they were humbled by his grace.
We live in a violent world, and violence begins in little ways, we as God’s family are to be people who work in the opposite direction, as Jesus did and as King Hussein did. Violence always begets violence. Jesus in both his life and death, demonstrated that by resisting both violence and evil, one can change the world- we may die doing it, but that is our call as Christians; like Jesus, we are to lay down our lives for the sake of others. Amen.