Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
April 9, 2000
Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 20:1-19
Joe Lilly and his wife, Doris, lived out in the country beside a quiet stream. But then one day the rains came, all night long and well into the next day, as hard as they had ever seen it rain. There were warnings on radio and TV that soon the area would be flooded, and all residents must evacuate. The Lillys' neighbor up the road came by that afternoon in his 4-wheel-drive truck to offer them a ride to safety, but Joe just thanked him and said he was sure that God would take care of them. By next morning, however, the flood waters had arrived and were lapping at the front porch. Soon a Red Cross rescue team arrived in a small boat and demanded that Joe and Doris get in. Joe thanked them, but when they persisted, he brandished his gun, shouting that they didn't need to be rescued. He was a devout Christian and he was sure God would answer their prayers to be delivered from the flood. As the day went on, however, the flood waters kept rising. The Lilly house was completely flooded, and Joe and Doris had taken refuge up on the roof. Late that afternoon a National Guard helicopter appeared, hovering over house. Joe tried to wave it off, and refused the rope ladder that was quickly offered. For 15 minutes the helicopter crew tried to get Joe and Doris to climb aboard, but Joe protested that God would take care of them while he cursed the 'copter crew for blowing half the singles off the roof. When dusk came, however, Joe and Doris became desperate as they were perched on the top of the chimney, the rest of the house having disappeared under the flood waters. When a huge bolt of lightning struck nearby, Joe trembled and shouted out, "What's wrong with you, God? Why haven't you saved us?" A booming voice answered out of the heavens, "What's wrong with you, Joe? I've already sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter!"
Our New Testament text this morning tells a somewhat similar but rather less amusing story. Few if any of Jesus' parables must have meant more to the early Church than his parable of the wicked tenants. This is evident both in the fact that we find the parable in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in the obvious elaboration of the parable into an allegory that would seem to put its interpretation beyond all doubt [cf. C.H. Dodd, PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM, 99]. As presented by the Gospels, we have in this parable a miniature history of salvation. The vineyard is an image of Israel, the "pleasant planting" of the LORD spoken of by Isaiah in our Old Testament text. The tenants are the people, in particular their religious and political leaders, who have been entrusted with this vineyard's care. The servants sent to these tenants by the owner are the prophets, such as Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist, who were reviled, persecuted, and rejected by the house of Israel. The beloved son whom the owner finally sends is Jesus, the Christ, who is crucified at the urging of the leaders of his people. Because the tenants of the vineyard reject even him, to the point of driving him out of the vineyard and then taking his life, the owner of the vineyard has little recourse but to turn against those wicked tenants and give the vineyard over to others. To the early Church this meant a turning point in history, the beginnings of a new Israel, the salvation of the Gentile world. Christ, who had been rejected by the Old Israel, became the cornerstone, binding together the walls of the new Temple, the Church.
So far as we can tell, however, Jesus never told parables in order to confirm or legitimate the prevailing self-conceptions of his hearers. His parables always have a way of altering conventional perceptions, of demanding that we take a new look at ourselves. If we simply treat this parable as an allegory about how salvation came to "us Gentiles," we will have totally missed its meaning and power. Like other parables of Jesus, this one calls into question our suppositions and compels us to re-examine the presumptions of our faith.
The setting for this parable is the temple in Jerusalem. The timing is shortly after Jesus has driven out the moneychangers. Resistance to Jesus is building. Members of the religious establishment have just come to question him about his authority. They perceive his teachings and his ministry as threat. They are out to destroy him, but they have not yet found a way. Jesus sidesteps the authority question, refusing to be caught in their trap. He then tells the parable of the wicked tenants and the vineyard.
The parable begins in a manner that is believable enough. A man planted a vineyard. It happens all the time. But then he let it out to tenants, and went into another country, where he was gone for a long time. This leaves the tenants free to cultivate and harvest the vineyard as they see fit. As tenants, however, they are required to pay a portion of the harvest to the owner, who has provided them with this means of livelihood. When the time comes, the owner sends one of his servants to collect what is due. We do not know why the owner himself did not go, though he must have thought it unnecessary. There is nothing unusual about the parable thus far.
For some reason, never explained, the tenants beat the owner's servant and send him away empty-handed. This is the first dramatic moment in the parable, a breach in whatever contract or covenant existed between the owner and his tenants. We wonder what got into those tenants! What could they possibly have been thinking? Surely the landowner would find out what they had done. Did they expect him to tolerate such insolent behavior? Did they suppose that he was so far away he would not be able to do anything about it? The parable offers no reason to excuse their deed.
Nevertheless, the landowner's response is simply to try again. Could it be that the tenants may not have recognized the first servant? Or is he a man so generous in his judgments that he is willing to overlook the tenants' grievous offense? Is he a fool? Or is he merely lacking other options? The owner's motives are never stated, only that he sends another servant to collect what was refused the first. He imposes no penalty or fine for late payment. He makes no threat. He offers the tenants a second chance, to right the wrong that they have done. But the tenants are without remorse. They treat the second servant even more shabbily than the first, and also send him away empty-handed.
According to Matthew and Mark, there were numerous other servants sent by the owner to the tenants. According to the Gospel of Thomas, there were but these two. According to Luke there was yet a third. None of these servants was treated in any but the most unkindly way. We hearers of the parable find it easy to conclude that these tenants are nothing but base and wicked fellows. If, in the beginning, they had simply made a mistake, an error in judgment, a lapse of integrity and good faith, their persisting refusal to set matters right confirms our worst suspicions about them. By their rejection of each successive servant, they only ratify the evil of their previous refusals. What began as a possibly remediable breach of trust is quickly compounded into an unmistakably cold-blooded rebellion.
And yet--and yet--the owner forbears. He must be terribly loath to punish or destroy. Or he must be a fool! "What shall I do?" he asks, still seeking some way to remedy the situation. "I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him." The tenants are granted the supreme opportunity to change their ways. Short of coming to them himself, the owner gives them the best possible chance to set matters right. Surely they will recognize his son. Surely they will realize they cannot mistreat him with impunity. It may be they will respect his son.
It would be hard to imagine a vineyard owner more patient, more forbearing, more generous! Or is it naive, impotent, and stupid? Or could it be this owner views the situation from a very different perspective than we? Perhaps the owner is one who insistently aims for the highest possibilities that any situation has to offer. He does not calculate the odds. He does not hedge his bets. He does his personal best to redeem his tenants' persistently worsening state. But they, for their part, resolve the more to complete their rebellion. Kill the owner's son, they suppose, and the inheritance will be theirs. By such strange logic they act to make the vineyard all their own. By such perverse folly they destroy their last remaining opportunity to keep the use of the land.
"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?" That is the question Jesus raises, and it may be on that question that the parable originally came to its end. The answer, from a human standpoint, is obvious: "The owner will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others" [21:16]. This must be the answer, if our human sense of justice is to be satisfied. But Jesus did not tell parables to arouse our indignation and elicit our conventional response. The parable is not told for its easy answer, but for its piercing question. Jesus' audience must have realized he was asking them to consider how much like the tenants they must be. But in pressing that question upon them, Jesus may also have been prodding them to consider how much like the vineyard owner God must be.
This parable draws one of the starkest, most devastating portraits of humankind to be found in the scriptures, and yet it remains a believable one. The human image we see, says biblical scholar Dan Otto Via, "is that of a being who tries to possess as much as he possibly can regardless of the cost to others and as a result brings about his own destruction" [THE PARABLES, 136]. The tenants want to claim everything as their own, their work, their output, and finally even the vineyard itself. They are the sort who would probably even take credit for the sunshine, the rain, and the good climate, if anyone would believe them [cf. Helmut Thielicke, THE WAITING FATHER, 108]. They are not so much immoral as amoral, without any rules or scruples to restrain them, without any tender feelings to guide them, without any shame to daunt them, without any humility to temper their judgments or their deeds. They seem intent on doing nothing except what is necessary to get what they desire.
The genius of Jesus' parable is to convince us that such a manner of living is ultimately a way to destruction and death. The wicked tenants never "get it" that they will finally have to reckon with the owner. From our perspective, they deserve whatever ill befalls them. They had every chance to set things right--to save their own skins, to put it bluntly--but they perversely insisted on trying to possess what they had no right ever to expect or demand.
Sometimes the most important spiritual truths come to us in the most negative way. The parable demonstrates that life cannot be sustained by selfishness and self-will. The tenants are done in by their own greed and stupidity. They are terminally set on having it their own way. Nothing seems capable of deterring them from the course on which they have set, a course that everyone but they can see spells disaster.
What is needed, then, is just the opposite of this unrestrained self-will, this perverse struggle for control, this lust for security, this lack of faith and trust in the benevolence of the universe [cf. Via, THE PARABLES, 137]. This is the whole crux of the matter for religious faith: Whether we can be content with what is ours and what is not . . . Whether it is possible to make it on our own . . . Whether we are able to let go . . . Whether there is any goodness in the world, to which we must be conformed or eventually be destroyed . . .
If this parable does nothing else, it ought to stir our appreciation for all those opportunities we have been given to set right what we have first set wrong. Who of us has never injured a friend? Forgotten a promise? Abused an opportunity? Treated someone with prejudice or contempt? Are there obligations we have spurned? Are there bills we have left unpaid? Are there covenants we have broken? One can hardly go back and undo what has been done. But often enough there comes the chance to make amends, to heal the breach, to start over on new footing. When we accept it we know it to be a special grace.
We are living in a time when many people feel that the world owes them a living. Lots of us have this attitude that we have already paid our dues. The demands that others would place upon us often meet with deep resistance. There is crying need for health care reform in our society; the gulf between rich and poor is pushing the limits of our democracy to the breaking point; but there is enormous opposition to policies and reforms that might lead to more equitable distributions of economic wealth and political power. Crimes of violence, homelessness, and drug abuse abound, but ordinary citizens want to hang on to their guns and are not willing to make the social investments needed to address our social ills. There is always a price to pay, and always an excuse not to pay it. How long can we all continue to live and work in this land, reaping the harvests but not paying the bills?
As we think about this parable, we may also reflect upon what is happening in our own denomination and others like it. We live in a changing world, and many think that "our" Church has been too willing to go along with that change. We need to return to the essentials of the faith, they say. We must stop letting the world set our agenda. In many respects this is true. The Church is not called to mirror the world, but to transform it. Yet so much of what is being advanced in the name of truth and faithfulness in the Church these days is little more than a program for retrenchment and survival, for gaining greater control, for shutting out the demands of the world, excluding those on the margin, and consolidating power. Some of this is happening in the corridors of our denominational offices, among our entrenched bureaucracies, where the privileges of leadership have obscured the obligations of service. But most of it is happening among those who take comfort in doctrinal orthodoxies, ecclesiastical traditions, societal conventions, and the perquisites of their status quo. Some of these are not too sure they want women in positions of leadership and virtually all of them are quite convinced there is little place for gay and lesbian persons in the church.
Truth, however, is not a matter of returning to a former state of knowledge and understanding, but an advance toward a more comprehensive appreciation of the realities of our existence. And faithfulness does not require a recapitulation of ancient formulas and procedures, but a reformulation of thought and action in keeping with the best that we can know. The divine Spirit does not seek to push us back into some earlier mode and mold, but to draw us forward to a more complete and perfect realization of God's will and purpose.
The figure of the vineyard owner in Jesus' parable implies that God is persistent in soliciting our response of faithfulness. We may resist and refuse, but the divine overtures keep coming. And these divine overtures are not simply demands, they are offers of forgiveness and acceptance and love. The first time that the owner sends his servant to the tenants, it appears to be only to collect his due. But with each successive effort by the owner we are increasingly struck by his forbearance. The owner sends first one servant, then another, then another still, then even his own son. Such risks he will take! To such lengths he will go! Such is the measure of the persistent and sacrificial love of God. Those in whom the judgment of the parable has found its mark are also those who can best perceive its gospel of amazing grace. The rebellious behavior of the tenants in this parable may be astounding, but even more astounding is the behavior of the owner who makes every effort to redeem their refusals and to keep them from destruction.
Yet this is anything but a sentimental parable. The owner of the vineyard may stand ready to forgive his tenants their former refusals, but he never releases them from the responsibilities that they bear. And the forgiveness that is extended to them cannot take effect without their accepting the claims of the owner upon them and their labors. As German theologian Helmut Thielicke commented, in reference to this parable, "If we do not make use of what Christ has done for us, if we do not seize the chance to be bearers of new beginnings, then Christianity becomes a burden and a judgment. And it is upon this note of judgment that the parable closes" [THE WAITING FATHER, 113].
But to this note of judgment, focussed in the question, "What then shall the owner of the vineyard do?", the Gospels have added a coda. The climax of the parable comes with the rejection of the vineyard owner's son, when he is cast out and killed. But that is not the end of the music after all. There is another movement to follow, an affirmation that confirms the efficacy and the power of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. For "(t)he very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner."
This was originally a reference to Israel and to the restoration that followed the exile in Babylon. The early Church re-interpreted it as a reference to the Christ. Either way, it is a testimony to the power of God to transform our losses, our refusals, even the evil that we do. We may rebel against life's obligations, we may squander our opportunities to make amends, we may even crush those who are vulnerable to our wants and those who are obstacles to our demands. We may and often do reject the overtures of God, and thereby possess the objects of our desire and temporarily gain control. If we do all this, however, we eventually bring destruction upon ourselves. But our story is not the end of the story. Through all our refusals, and even if we destroy and are destroyed, the Christian Gospel insists, God remains at work--powerfully at work--to redeem and ultimately to save. AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert