Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Wine is bottled poetry.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Our text this week of parable and interpretation raises a number of compelling questions for the church. Knowing the story as we do, it is perhaps understandable for us to look at Jesus’ interpretation of the parable of the wicked tenants as a prophecy foretelling the opening of the kingdom of God to the Gentiles. While this isn’t perhaps an invalid interpretation, it is one that allows us, as the church, to be bystanders to the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, instead of locating ourselves within the story itself.
The parable begins with the planting and establishing of a vineyard, and the owner of the vineyard leaving tenants in charge. Servants come to collect the produce for the owner, but again and again the tenants wound and kill the servants. Finally the owner’s son comes, and the tenants murder him in order to get his inheritance.
What is at stake in this story? It doesn’t seem to be the vineyard itself in the sense of land lust, but rather the withholding of the fruit which rightly belongs to the owner. The story is that of a harvest theft.
The Pharisees hear this tale, and rightly understand that by it, Jesus means them. But it’s interesting to consider how they would have identified themselves within the story. Are they the wicked tenants, or are they the landowner? It appears from their answer to Jesus’ question, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” that they lean toward commiseration with the landowner. They respond to Jesus by saying the wicked tenants will get what’s coming to them and be replaced by trustworthy tenants.
But who does Jesus mean them to be? In his interpretation of the parable, his indication that they, like the owner, will experience loss of the harvest and of the kingdom indicates his understanding that the Pharisees view themselves as analogous with the vineyard owner. But while they, like the owner, would have the kingdom taken from them, did they ever have a legitimate claim to ownership? In other words, were they the landowner in the parable, or were they merely tenants?
Jesus never says explicitly, but by his interpretation names their disordered sense of position as owners, and corrects them by drawing attention to their powerlessness and lack of recourse when the kingdom is taken and given to others, since they are only tenants. Later in Matthew, when they kill him like the son of the vineyard owner in the parable, they will prove their role in the parable.
Would it have ever occurred to the Pharisees that the kingdom could be taken from them and given to Gentiles? As before mentioned, Jesus’ words are often interpreted today in this way.
However, at the end of last week’s gospel reading, also a vineyard parable, the Pharisees are identified with the second son, the one who responds to the father’s request for him to work in the vineyard by saying he will go work, but then he does not. The Pharisees are then told, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Perhaps then, in hearing this, the second vineyard parable, the Pharisees hear Jesus say the kingdom will be given to the rag-tag band of tax collectors, prostitutes, and fishermen that Jesus surrounds himself with. They’ll lose the kingdom of God to idiots. This notion would seem to them to be of Jesus’ own delusional creation, if the people in Jerusalem and the surrounding hillside hadn’t responded so eagerly to his ministry such that the threat had an air of validity.
Now with another possible understanding of Jesus’ words about who will receive the kingdom of God, if not the Gentiles, space opens for the church to step into the story, not as a bystander, but as a character. What about us? If Jesus speaks the parable of the wicked tenants to us, which character are we most apt to identify with?
While in theory, we know we are tenants and our role is the good work of tending vines and producing fruit, branches that we are, is the fruit always properly returned to the vineyard owner? In our American culture, how often consumerism forms us to commodify the fruit of the kingdom, or lay claim to the Son’s inheritance, all the while slipping into the delusion of seeing the vineyard as our own. Perhaps at times, as Wordsworth says, “The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
On the other hand, while the vineyard is God’s, it’s difficult not to wonder, at times, if we have taken enough sense of ownership in the kingdom that Jesus’ words feel to us a stern warning: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.” Do we consider whether it could be? Do we sense the holy task we are charged with, and what is at stake if we fail at stewardship? Under our vocation as vineyard workers, is there fruit produced sufficient to be called a harvest?
A few chapters later in Matthew, Jesus and his disciples will gather around the table in the upper room, and taking a cup of wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands, Jesus will pass it to his disciples, saying, “Drink of this, all of you. For this is my blood.” The vine, by mystery, is the Son; the wine, the Word. And in giving of himself, he speaks a new word, new wine in new wine skins, a new covenant, and a way of grace that we might be no longer mere tenant, but also branch; no longer mere worker, but extension of his body.
And in this system of vine and branches, we don’t own but rather are owned, and therefore the stewardship of the vineyard is right use of ourselves – our gifts and vocations, our desires and hopes, our identity as the Church, our very lives, transformed by grace and participation with the Spirit into the fruit of the kingdom. Like the wine at the table, our life together is the fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
As we are tasked with nurturing and returning a harvest to God, may we live deeply into our vocation as stewards of the kingdom, becoming like the fruit of the vine and work of human hands, the body and blood of Christ for the world. Amen.