Does anyone here have a good memory?
Thinking back over the past couple of weeks, what does the Gospel reading today have in common with the Gospel readings of last week and the week before?
Vineyards feature in all the readings. Two weeks ago we read about a landowner who employed people to work in his vineyard. He caused dissent when he paid all his workers the same regardless of how long they had worked. The vineyard there represented the kingdom of God where the first are last and the last first. Last week a man asked his two sons to work in his vineyard. One said no but later went and did as he was asked, whereas the second said yes but didn’t follow through on his words. We learnt that those who were initially not obeying God will enter the kingdom, but the ones who think of themselves as righteous but would fail to enter as they didn’t listen to God’s word.
Vineyards were common in Israel. Wine was the common drink as the water was not necessarily of good quality. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that vineyards occur in our readings.
Vines and vineyards are referred to throughout the Bible. The references may just mean exactly what they say, but more often the vineyard is a metaphor for Israel. In Psalm 80 we have a little bit of history. God brought his vine (the people of Israel) out of Egypt and planted it in a good land. He tended it in order to help it to flourish. He removed the nations that occupied the promised land, giving his people room to grow strong, just as a farmer might clear the land of stones and weeds to allow a young grapevine to establish itself.
Isaiah picks up the vineyard theme. God did all that a careful farmer could possibly do for the vines in his vineyard. He made sure it was watched over until it bore fruit. He was hoping for a valuable harvest of best quality grapes, but got only wild, bitter, small grapes:
“he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!”
As a result, God decided to abandon his vineyard rather than protecting it. As we know from Biblical history, when the people of Israel drifted too far from the way God intended them to live, he removed his protection from them and they were conquered and exiled.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard another of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God. Just like his counterpart in the reading from Isaiah, the landowner does everything he can to allow the vineyard to be productive. He pays some tenants to tend the vineyard and expects to benefit from the harvest. This parable is directed fully at the leaders of the Jewish people, and they know it. They should have been caring for the vineyard, the people of Israel, and accountable to the landowner, God, but actually they were completely dedicated to gaining what they could for themselves.
It’s interesting that those who were listening knew exactly what a landowner should do in those circumstances. The tenants would be killed and replaced by tenants who would do the right job. I doubt that the Pharisees and chief priests needed Jesus to point out what his parable meant. They knew he was showing them up as simply not good enough for the job they’d been given.
Now, we are not Pharisees, or chief priests, or the people of Israel, but we are God’s people and his expectation hasn’t changed. Jesus said it was the people who produced the fruits of the kingdom who would be given the job of tending the vineyard. You get grapes from vines if they are well tended, given the right conditions and care. We develop the fruits of the kingdom in the same way. We need to follow the manual on vine growing. That is God’s word, of course. He would be expected to be the expert in looking after his people, his vines in his vineyard. He knows what is best and he’s explained it over the centuries through his prophets. Finally he sent Jesus to demonstrate exactly what that special care looks like.
I don’t think that the ancient people of Israel, or the leaders of the Jews in the first century, set out to get things horribly wrong. I think that very, very slowly they drifted away from the proper path, a tiny bit at a time. I’m pretty sure we can all do the same, individually and corporately. If we want to fight against that tendency, we need to take time to examine ourselves before God, in the light of his word, and be honest about what we find. Every week we take time to bring our faults before God because we know he wants us to flourish like his choice vine. He’s happy to help us get rid of the stones and weeds in our lives so that we can bear good fruit, fulfilling God’s hope for his people.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor