“Listen to another parable,” Jesus says. Haven’t we had enough parables lately?
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard . . .” Another vineyard? What’s with all the vineyard talk, Jesus? Workers in the vineyard, two sons in the vineyard, now a landowner in a vineyard?
Vineyards may be archaic or obscure to us. Maybe we have some scuppernong or muscadine vines in our gardens. Who knows? The vineyard, however, was a popular image for the people of God. Hear the poetic words of Isaiah 5:1-4:
Let me sing for my loved one
a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it,
cleared away its stones,
planted it with excellent vines,
built a tower inside it,
and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes—
but it grew rotten grapes.
3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
why did it grow rotten grapes?
A prophet telling of his disappointment with the yield of a vineyard. A short jump to a Messiah telling of a landowner’s struggles with the workers in the vineyard. The image was already planted (no pun intended) in the minds of Jesus’ audience.
This is the third of three responses to the Leaders’ question: “What kind of authority do you have to do these things? Who do you think you are?”
- First answer: Where do you think John got his authority?
- Second answer: There was a man who had two sons. One showed his obedience to his father’s will through his actions.
- Third answer: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard . . .
He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.
36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”
41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?[a] 43 Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”
45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.
For Isaiah, the problem was the earth – the vineyard was cared for, but it still produced bad fruit. For Jesus, the earth produced the proper yield, but the workers were bad. In other words, the problem was not with “The Kingdom,” but its inhabitants. The people of God’s Kingdom were motivated by greed, for they, in the end, killed “the son” in order to “have his inheritance.” A misguided goal, at best, for what landowner would ever share his son’s inheritance with the people who killed him?
Apparently, the meaning was not lost on the chief priests and Pharisees. The symbolism is clear to us, too. Jesus is the “son,” and humanity is the “tenants.”
This parable has always disturbed me for that reason. These people are horrible! Killing the servants and the son? Then, I realize that Jesus is talking about me! Stop! The punchline doesn’t make it any better – “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Darn it, Jesus! I’m trying! I’d never kill anybody, but my “fruit producing” sometimes leaves something to be desired.
I continued to be bothered (which, by the way, is what a good parable is supposed to do!) until I noticed the landowner’s actions.
We all would have lost patience with the tenant farmers, and answered like the chief priests, “Let’s put those miserable wretches to death!” Dang straight! They deserve it!
What kind of landowner would ever send a second round of servants, much less his own son? A crazy landowner, that’s for sure! Jesus’ culture was an “honor and shame” culture. The sending of the son was an attempt to gain some honor; “surely, these tenants will show the proper respect to my appointed heir. That’s the appropriate thing to do.” Yeah, but who would risk it? They’ve already beaten and killed most of your servants! Are you crazy?
Yes. The landowner is crazy – crazy in love with his tenants.
The inference is clear. God is the “crazy in love” landowner! When it made enough “sense” for God to write us off, leave us to our own devices, “put those miserable wretches to death,” he tried again . . . and again . . . and again . . . even after we killed his son.
The love of God for us is so “crazy” that it defies all logic!
When it would have been reasonable enough, the Heavenly Landowner could have “put those wretches to death,” or, as in the case of Isaiah’s warning, withdrawn his protection.
Our God tried even harder – sent his son, even! Forever reaching out to us, when it seems we are determined to be unreachable.
Reggie Holder, a friend who is on the staff at Highlands UMC in Birmingham, told the following story at the recent funeral of Belon Friday, a retired UMC pastor. Lucky for us, Reggie posted it on Facebook. I tell it with his permission:
Belon Friday was a “hale fellow well met” (as he might say) – a man of great wisdom and compassion. He never met a stranger and was always eager to help others, particularly those in a ditch, the down trodden or those out of luck.
One particular gray, rainy and cold Friday morning shortly after I started to work at Highlands, I looked out the office window and noticed a frail, elderly woman wearing only a thin, short sleeved house dress, wandering aimlessly in the church parking lot. She held a rolled-up newspaper still in the plastic rain sleeve in her hands and was walking from car to car gently tapping each car window. I watched for a while then went outside to see what was going on.
I approached her and asked if I could help her and she just looked at me with a vacant stare and sort of hummed. “Hmmm hmmm hmmm.”
I asked her if she was looking for someone and she just hummed again,” hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.”
I asked a couple of other questions and each time the same response – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.”
I suggested that we get out of the rain and took her by the elbow and led her inside to the church office.
Once we were inside, Jean Jones, our church secretary, tried talking to the woman and asked a few questions and she too got the same reply – a soft humming.
Several women from the church kitchen had been watching the scene in the parking lot and they had made their way to the office and they tried to help us learn the identity of the woman and asked questions and with each question came the same thing – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.”
Not knowing what else to do we called the Southside police precinct and they sent a community service officer to help. He asked a few questions and the same humming answer was the woman’s reply. He checked to see if anyone was reported missing from area nursing homes and came up empty. We were at a loss to know what to do next.
Then Belon came lumbering into the office. We brought him up to speed and he asked the woman how she was doing and she began to hum – “hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.”
Belon’s face lit up – “Oh, you like to sing?” He bent down on one knee so he was level with the woman, and said, “Let’s sing then – and began.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”. – Come on Reg, Jean, sing with me –
“That saved a wretch, like me,” we joined in.
Then the woman began to sing with us “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
Belon took her small, wrinkled hands in his big oversized hand. He looked her straight in the eye and whispered softly, “Little mama, tell me your name.”
“Mary Taylor,” she answered.
“Miz Taylor – do you know your address?”
“1217 2nd Avenue, West — across from Rickwood Field.”
Jean Jones had her steno pad and is furiously taking down every detail.
“Miz Taylor – do you know your phone number?” She recites it and Jean writes it down.
“Miz Taylor, would you like us to take you home?”
“Oh yes, would you please?”
Reggie continues, “A quick phone call confirmed all that she had told Belon. This frail, elderly woman who could not remember her name was soon reunited with her family.”
One more time. One more attempt, God says. Maybe this time, it will work. We will be brought home.
That’s love! Crazy love!