Readings: Isaiah 5, Matthew 21:33-45; Preached at St Andrew Memorial, London Ontario.
You have maybe had that moment where someone starts to tell a story and you realize you’ve heard it before – so you know that it is a good one… there is that eager expectation for the highlights of the story – you might even prompt the story teller if you think they’ve forgotten one of the key lines.
I kind of think that is how the listeners must have felt when Jesus started to tell the parable in today’s Gospel reading: They know the story about the vineyard. They’ve heard it before from Isaiah and they are pretty sure that they know exactly what is going on:
Israel the unfaithful.
Israel the untrue.
God’s unrequited love for Israel.
Unrequited love that results in Israel being cast away – exiled, and her temple destroyed because of her bad behaviour.
So when Jesus started to tell the story about the vineyard with wicked tenants, I picture some of those listening taking a step back, maybe folding their arms or raising an eyebrow and saying, ”I know how this one goes! Lets see how he does”
Jesus describes the care the landowner goes to in order to set up his vineyard. He describes the way the landowner leaves the vineyard with tenants to tend it and harvest its produce.
Then Jesus describes the cycle of violence that ensues when the landowner seeks to recover the crop from the vineyard:
The tenants kill the first set of slaves sent to collect the fruits of the vineyard.
Then the tenants kills the second set of slaves sent to collect the fruits of the vineyard.
The landowner, perhaps in a temporary loss of sanity, thinks they won’t dare do anything to his son and his heir. So the son is sent to collect the fruits of the vineyard and the tenants seize him, toss him out, and kill him too.
So it isn’t really too surprising that when Jesus finally asks the question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” that everyone listening is like “Oh, I’ve got this one, I know the answer”: after all, in the vineyard story from Isaiah that they all know, God destroys the vineyard entirely, trampling down its walls, lets it become overgrown, casts out the people, and speaks of bloodshed from the pruning that Israel will experience.
So the listeners answer, kindly sparing the vineyard itself, but damning the tenants: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
If they won’t comply, kill them and get new people who will do a better job.
I find myself asking “Why” when I read this gospel parable. Why are the tenants killing the slaves and trying to keep the harvest and the land? I wonder what drove them to do that?
Are they really wicked?
What if they are desperate?
The landowner, we are told, lives at a distance. An absentee landowner. He bought the property and probably invested a lot of money into setting up this vineyard, came to some sort of arrangement with his tenants, and then took off to live in another land. So this guy probably has some money. Judging from the way he takes such time and care to set up his vineyard, we can guess that this was a brand new vineyard: a brand new vineyard carved out from land that may once have been common land for the peasants to harvest crops for their food on. This was a common practice in Palestine in Jesus’ day.
It is also, unfortunately, a common practice today.
Canada is home to 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies and mineral exploration companies. The Canadian stock exchange raises 40% of all mineral exploration capital worldwide. (Statistics from Kairos)
Canadian mining companies have been known for taking advantage of, worsening, or even provoking conflict in countries with weak democracies. Exploiting the conflict to their own financial and material gain.
I travelled to El Salvador at the beginning of this year. In El Salvador we sat with and listened to the stories of people affected by Canadian mining operations in that country. We heard about agreements made to deliver the resources from the land at the expense of the workers and those trying to live on the land. Wealthy company executives who live in another country who pressure – and even trick – those working the land to sign away the rights for and turn over a product beyond what they and what their land can sustainably produce. To give up a return that will not enrich the workers and will not provide for their livelihood – instead it will kill their livelihoods and poison their water. A return that will only line the pocket of the mining company executives and shareholders. And when the people of the country put their foot down and say “No more exploitation,” violence – intimidation and death – against those who protest, follows.
Would we blame these workers if they decided to revolt? Wanted to seek better working conditions? Wanted to protect their children and livelihoods?
I’m all for justice in the world, and I’m all about fairness – and killing messengers sent to collect produce probably needs to be dealt with, but all of this – the destruction of the land, the exploitation of vulnerable workers and retribution for non-compliance – this just seems like a lot of violence that needs to be stopped. The people listening to Jesus’ story, however seem to encourage it to continue: “put those miserable wretches to death and find someone else to do the dirty work.”
I don’t know about you, but that kind of response doesn’t seem like the Jesus that speaks elsewhere in the gospels – the Jesus who challenges the status quo and asks us to stand up for the poor and the vulnerable. Not with violence, but with love.
Jesus, shocking his listeners, and perhaps challenging us, doesn’t agree with that response either. Jesus flips it around. “Haven’t you read the scriptures?” he asks. As if to say – is this really what you think God is like? Do you really want a violent God? A God who is represented by the landowner that goes in and kills everyone – a God who is just going to be violent in response to any violence that happens?
No, says Jesus, “the stone that has been rejected will be the cornerstone.” Instead of telling a story of a violent and retributive landowner, I am telling the story of what could be: Those who you reject I have lifted up. The least among you is the greatest. The voiceless will be listened to. Those who exploit will be overturned and we will have grace and justice.
We believe in a God who asks us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those in prison, shelter those who are homeless. A God whose son Jesus Christ said, “whatever you did to one of the least of these, you did to me.”
I am challenged to ask, what I, what we, have done and what I, what we, have left undone to the least of these.