Jesus says the kingdom is like a man who left his vineyard with tenants who even killed his son. God then gave the vineyard to those who will tend it for him. Immediately we come to the question of God.
I think we often suspect that God is far removed, particularly if he’s not doing what we want him to do. Jesus becomes a religious antique, and the church is turned into an historical society devoted to wishing we had lived in an earlier time, when he was here among us.
There’s a little thing I sang in Sunday School when I was 6 or 7 years old. “I think when I read that sweet story of old // When Jesus was here among men// How he called little children as lambs to his fold, I should like to have been with him then.
If we could have been with him then, would we have more faith now? Perhaps we would have received a miracle, or we would have heard him teach about the kingdom! Jesus has promised that God is with us. We are the people of God. We receive him as the bread of life, we know him in our midst. At his Ascension, Jesus did not desert us. He simply changed the way in which he is present. The principal activity of the church, then, is worship. Jesus has said where two or three are gathered, there am I.
Now we have a story about a vineyard and its absentee owner. The chief priests and elders in Jerusalem certainly knew Isaiah’s much older story about the vineyard, a vineyard where God worked so hard, so lovingly, and then got wild grapes for his effort.
God says he will therefore destroy the garden, even likening his vineyard to the house of Israel and the people of Judah, because they disappointed him. At the time when Jesus was active in Palestine, it was legal and possible for a man’s property to be givern to strangers—provided he had no heirs.
Now he sits in judgment, and his beautiful garden will be trampled down and overgrown with briers and thorns.
When the chief priests and elders heard Jesus, the old story from Isaiah came to their minds. They heard a more pointed message than we might be hearing. They heard him say that God has taken the vineyard from the very people he had planted it for so that those who had been the IN crowd would now become the OUT crowd.
So the question is, Were they not keepers of God’s vineyard? Would other people come and tend the vineyard? How could this happen?
Jesus answered, as the stone rejected by the builders has ultimately become the cornerstone, so the kingdom will be taken away from you and given to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.
Now, it would be entirely wrong for us to say the story is about the Jews who did not believe in Jesus, and now their inheritance has been given to Christians.
The chief priests and elders were saying to themselves, “Our fathers were with Moses at Mt. Sinai, and with David when the tribes became a kingdom. Who does he think he is that he can talk to us that way?”
His hecklers began to get the point, and they became determined to kill him exactly as the ungrateful tenants did to the son of the vineyard owner in the parable. But where does that leave us?
We have to return to our consideration of God. The first story in the bible lays out the truth that our ancestors were judged and found guilty of disobedience. No sooner were Adam and Eve in the garden than they immediately disobeyed.
We also cannot measure up to God’s purity or majesty or holiness. All that is rather obvious, I suppose. The really important judgment upon us is that we cannot measure up to God’s hope, and the Bible is essentially a story of divine humility and God’s hope.
The parables are part of just one big story about God’s presence among us. No one escapes the judgment of it all. God has stooped to conquer us by love. He has granted his presence among us. In being among us, he has turned everything upside down and inside out. Judgment in the Bible always means the saving judgment of God’s presence so that he challenges the victorious and comforts the defeated. He indicts the righteous and forgives the sinner. Most of all, the Bible tells us of a love that will not let us go. The parable of the vineyard is the story of God’s determination to bring in the harvest, to bring in the kingdom.
From Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, and Moses, and David and Solomon, he prepared a nation that would be the setting for the coming of his Son.
As Isaiah described the Son of God, he was wounded for our transgressions, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Yet, he is the one raised from the dead, now present everywhere to foreshadow the kingdom by his presence at the table. Right here we join Him in a foretaste of the feast that is to come.
The parable tells not only that we have been given a place at the banquet of God once reserved for the tribes of Israel, but the parable tells us God believes in his creation. God does not give up. If some reject him, he will find others. Were we in God’s place, but still acting like we usually act, we would take our hurt feelings and say, “I’m finished with this whole idea.”
But God in his humility keeps on looking for others who will be his people, who will see the world as God’s vineyard.
Our duty, our pleasure, is to make the joys of creation available to all, so that no one is excluded. The story challenges us to examine ourselves and ask whether we acknowledge all of life with love and care until the kingdom fully comes.
Jesus Christ can be our cornerstone of life. He will bear us up. Upon him, we can build meaning, hope, service, endurance, self-sacrifice.
When we look to Jesus Christ and find meaning for life in him, then we shall produce the fruits that mark us as people of the kingdom of God. Then we shall be people who keep God’s vineyard for him.
The story also comforts us in showing that God never gives up. But God is not easy to understand. A nun whose name I do not have wrote a few lines about God.
“Teresa was God’s familiar. She often spoke to Him informally.
As if together they shared some heavenly joke.
Once, watching stormily her heart’s ambitions wither to odds and ends,
With all to start anew, she cried, ‘If this is the way You treat Your friends,
No wonder You have so few!’ ”
There is no perfect record standing by of God’s reply. Not easy to understand — God never throws up his hands in total despair. He loves all creation, all people. His chosen people produce the fruits of the kingdom with hope, mercy, love, kindness, that come to life in us.
Jesus Christ is present at our table. Now, because of his presence, we look forward to the great banquet of heaven.
May the peace of the Risen Lord be with you all.