22 March 2020 Trouble in the Vineyard Martin Baker
1 Then he began to speak to them in parables. "A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, "They will respect my son.' 7 But those tenants said to one another, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?" 12 When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
I’ve noticed that one of the ways people deal with a situation like the one we are facing now is with humour.
For instance, a cartoon last week of people sitting in a plane and hearing over the speaker ‘this is your captain speaking, I’m working from home today.’
So a joke like that recognises a number of things. Perhaps it asks us why we would want to be on a plane at a time like this. It reminds us of the impact on the airline industry of what we are facing now. It reminds us that some people can work at home but others have to go to work, and those people are more vulnerable. People who still work in the airlines, but also medical staff, people like cashiers those who work in our supermarkets, or in our factories or who drive taxis or work in hospitality or retail.
And the other thing about this joke, ‘this is your captains speaking, I’m working from home today,’ is that it would have made almost no sense just a few weeks ago.
This is a difficult story we heard today. It is a story that is full of violence and disruption and fear. But it takes on its real seriousness; it begins to make more sense, when we think about the times and the people who Jesus was telling the story to.
This story is being told to the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders. The very people, who in the next few days, will seek his imprisonment and execution.
We are told at the end of today’s story 12 When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
So Jesus is not speaking to his supporters or his followers or his disciples here, he is speaking to those who find his words and his actions a threat.
I saw a picture of a banner responding to the corona crisis that read ‘Every disaster movie begins with the government ignoring a scientist.’
And in the same way in the story today and in so many Bible stories , every Bible disaster starts with those in power ignoring a prophet.
It’s one thing to preach to the converted to speak to those who support you, agree with you, but to speak, to be a prophet or even a scientist, or even a person of faith, into the midst of a hostile audience those who will be threatened by what you say, that requires a whole different level of courage.
So we hear that the landowner who planted the vineyard, put a fence around it, dug the pit, and built the guard tower. A huge investment.
He sends a slave to collect a share of the wine but who ends up facing the hostile tenants, a slave who is beaten and sent on his way empty handed. What does he tell his master when he finally makes his way to the far country, limping? Whatever it was, it did not prevent the landowner from doing the exact same thing again, sending another slave, alone and, apparently, unarmed. Asking for a share of the produce. This slave gets rewarded with a head wound and harassment, and then he too must make the long journey back to the landowner.
Was anything learned from this second attempt? No. The stubborn landlord just sends another slave off, as if nothing had happened. This one doesn’t come back.
At any rate, Jesus tells us that he just keeps on sending out these slaves, “many” of them. They all come back injured, if they come back at all. How many harvests have come and gone since the first slave was sent out? But the landowner has one last attempt, a “beloved” son. The tenants would not dare hurt him.? The tenants, somehow, know this latest emissary is the inheritor of the vineyard. Perhaps it is his bearing; perhaps it is his clothing. Either way, they know this is their chance. They grab him, kill him, and toss his body out to the wild animals.
What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will (finally!) make the trip to the vineyard himself and destroy the tenants and then give the property to others.
It is all quite brutal.
On one level the story reflects something that seems within human nature. Our inclination towards denial. There is denial in the story by the vineyard workers, and denial to by the hostile audience who is listening to the story.
I think this probably happens at a personal level in all sorts of ways, and I know that I still have a sense of disbelief about the reality of what the virus is doing. Sometimes it seems that that denial can end up leading us to be passive or make decisions that don’t reflect the reality of what we are facing.
But at its core the parable that Jesus told of the tenants in the vineyard presents a nobleman who chooses grace and vulnerability in the face of violent opposition. The prophets are sent again and again and they face rejection and death. And finally the precious son is sent and he is murdered and his body is tossed away.
Then the destruction that comes as an entirely predictable consequence of all this sin and violence. When we read this same parable in the Gospel of Matthew, the same word used to describe the destruction of the murderous tenants is the word used to describe the behaviour of the tenants. Something like the destroyers are destroyed. In other words, at the core of their very actions in destroying the messengers, it is that same thing that would end up destroying them as well.
So we find a more uncomfortable Jesus. This is not the Jesus who is silent before his accusers but the Jesus who is right in the thick of things, holding his own.
At the end of the parable, Jesus makes an odd leap, asking his opponents if they know the story about the stone that goes from rejection to exaltation, and how amazing that is. Jesus quotes from palm 118 "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'
It is only at that point that these priests and scribes and Pharisees realise the parable is about them. And about their rejection of Jesus as God’s son. How could this man from Nazareth, how could this man who eats with sinners, who heals the rejected, how could this man who rejects the use of military force and nationalism, how could he be the son of God? This man, who to us appears so weak of so little consequence.
Paul picks up this reversal of expectation, the rejected one, the denied one, becoming the foundation when he spoke to those early Christian communities who were facing such huge opposition and rejection themselves - he said something really interesting to them.
1st Corinthians Chapter 1 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[a] not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one[c] might boast in the presence of God.
And I listen to that and I think about the people in our lives and the life of our church who persevere, who do the hard thing day after day. Often all too aware of their inadequacy.
There is a lovely photo of Lynette’s daughter Katie on the wall in the lounge. She has been working as a volunteer on the Hope ship in Senegal. She is carrying a little girl with some kind of injury in her arms. Walking down dusty road. I think of those who mostly quietly, sacrificially caring for someone they love. Day after day. I think of those who give of their time, who give their money never certain of outcomes or results but certain of their faith, certain of doing the right thing. No one hear boasting.
The story today isn’t about being spiritual or religious . It is about the realities of rejections or acceptance, about violence or vulnerability. Very real choices, very real decisions. Who we accept and who is turned away. It is about cornerstones, the faith and beliefs we have on which we base our own lives. And it is also about the tough matter of judgement. Theologian Frederick Buechner reminds us, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.
So as we reflect on the challenge of today, let’s remember how God sent the vulnerable. God uses us in our doubt and even in our weakness.
In the midst of these times when we all feel vulnerable , when we see the power of a virus that overwhelms even the most powerful. As inadequate as we feel God’s will for us is not to live in fear but to bring hope and life. So let’s affirm again, Jesus as cornerstone of our lives, and to see this as a special tie where we can be those living people of grace and healing for the world which God so loves.
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