“Hear another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.
When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” (Matthew 21:33-37)
I found, as I was reading through this parable again this week, that my mind went back to Maaloula (in Syria). I’ve been there twice now, including once at the beginning of this year. I first visited there though in 2014, not long after the village had been re-taken from Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Syrian version of Al-Qaeda) by the Syrian Arab Army.
The signs of war were still very present at the time of my first visit. Damaged houses were everywhere, including one with graffiti sprayed across its walls that I was told translated “We grow closer to God cutting off heads”!
I remember very vividly too looking out of the window of the monastery, located at the top of the mountain in Maaloula, and looking down at the town, and being told that there had been an Al-Qaeda sniper positioned in that window during the months of occupation.
That made sense, as you could see the whole village from that window, with the town square right below. My guide then told me “but he was sniped”. When I asked what he meant, he pointed to the blood and (what appeared to be) other fragments of the man who had once pointed a gun out that window, still visible on the window frame.
Returning this year, most of the more obvious signs of violence have been cleaned up, even if most of the houses were still in bad need of repair. Even so, when I visited the same monastery, and looked out that same window, this time I was told another story about that sniper. One of our hosts asked me “do you see the fountain there in the middle of the town square?” I said “yes, of course”. He said, “my father was shot there as he went to get some water – shot by the man in this window”.
I can’t imagine that that man can ever look out that window without being reminded of his father, going to draw water, and yet his story was just one of so many terrible stories, as that is what it’s like to live under occupation, and the parable from Jesus that we are dealing with today is likewise a story of an occupation.
Of course, it’s a vineyard that is being occupied in this story, rather than a village, and yet the results are much the same, in that they are equally stories of violence.
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.” (Matthew 21:33)
Thus begins what might have been a lovely story of a beautiful vineyard, but which instead depicts a vineyard that gradually goes to seed through the mismanagement of its tenants, though the focus of the story is not so much on their mismanagement of the property as it is on their callous disregard for the rights of the legal owner.
“When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” (Matthew 21:34-36)
The behaviour of the tenant-farmers is vicious. What’s more it seems completely senseless! Even if they were useless tenants and couldn’t come up with the rent, why would they act with such total disregard for the law or for their relationship with their landlord?
The longer I live, the more convinced I become that violence is always senseless. Of course, I know that, in theory, there are appropriate uses of force, and even the concept of a just war does make sense to me. It’s just that I’ve never seen a just war. In the short time I’ve been alive I’ve seen plenty of wars – from Vietnam to Afghanistan, to Iraq to Syria to Yemen, and so on. I simply struggle to see anything positive or constructive that’s been achieved in any of that violence!
Of course, you don’t need to travel the world to see violence. I’ve seen more than enough here in Dulwich Hill! It’s hard to believe now, given what our community has become, that for 23 years we ran a youth drop-in out of this church where our main aim was to provide a safe space for kids in the area, and we did that because for most of those years Dulwich Hill was not a space place for a lot of young people!
Yes, we’ve gone from being the heroin capital of the inner-west to being the latte-sipping capital of the inner west, which I do find hard to absorb sometimes. Even so, if I start slipping back into sentimentality, I only need to think about some of the things I’ve seen happen on the streets here, from overdoses, to punch-ups, to one of our boys, wielding a knife, trying to kick the door in on one of our halls, in order to get at a girl who was on the other side of that door, screaming!
In truth, I’ve seen more than enough violence for one lifetime, and our church has seen more than enough violence. I confess that it was a perverse point of pride for me at one stage a few years ago when we had no less than three members of our church community who had been shot (and none of them were war veterans). That may not be so uncommon if you live in Syria (or even in the USA) but in Sydney it was probably unique. So much violence, and all so senseless!
The senseless violence in the parable comes to a climax when the landowner decides to send his son to them.
Last of all, he (the landowner) sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” (Matthew 21:37)
I do think the question needs to be asked at this point, ‘what made the landowner think that these tenant farmers would respect his son?’
Given the behaviour of the tenant farmers up to this point – their complete disregard for the landowner’s rightful claims to his property, and the horrendous acts of violence that they had meted out to every one of his representatives. What made the landowner believe that these people would suddenly change their behaviour and behave rationally, and show respect?
As I say, the violence of the tenant farmers seems senseless, and indeed their whole project seems to bear the marks of insanity.
If those tenants had wanted to keep their master at a safe distance, why didn’t they just give him some token amount such as might have kept him satisfied? He doesn’t seem to have been a very hard man to please!
Or why didn’t they try to give the landlord the impression that his servants had never shown up. If they were going to commit murder, why not at least be clever about it – killing the servants quietly and disposing of their bodies secretly? No! These people seem to be unashamed in the way they behave! It’s as if they had forgotten that they had a master? Certainly, they act as if the master didn’t exist!
And yet the only thing more incomprehensible than the mindless and wanton behaviour of the tenants is the apparent optimism of the landlord, who keeps sending his messengers and servants, somehow assuming that the situation is going to improve, and he believes this for reasons that are completely unfathomable!
Instead of realising, after the assault on his first servant that these tenants need to be dealt with, this vineyard owner turns a blind eye, so it seems, in the hope that this might have just been a one-off. And so he sends a second and a third servant, and so on, into the vineyard, and some come back badly bloodied, and some never come back at all, yet still the penny just doesn’t seem to drop!
And so we reach this climax where the master sends his son to the tenants, believing, inexplicably, that ‘They will respect my son” (Matthew 21:37) but …
“when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Matthew 21:33-39)
Jesus ends his story with a question:
Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matthew 21:40) to which my response is, ‘I don’t know. Has he got another son?’
Whatever made this master think that these people would respect his son in the first place? We could have told him what would happen. The indications were all there that these people were never going to respect the rightful owner of the vineyard. Why give them another chance? Why not just nuke the lot of them? What sort of set-up is this where the master just puts up with ongoing cycles of endless violence? What sort of people are these tenants? What sort of master is this?
Of course, the tenants treat the landlord’s son with the same contempt that they did his other servants. This comes as no surprise. This is how the vineyard operates. This is the sort of treatment the landlord has always received at the hands of his tenants.
And so the story closes and nothing is resolved. The master now has no rent, no servants, no vineyard and now … no son! The evil tenants are alive and well and still appear to be running the show, and so the violence continues with no sign of resolution. ‘He who has ears, let him hear!’
This is a horrible story, but unless I’m very much mistaken, this is our story!
Yes, of course, Jesus was very much speaking to His own first century community with this story, and I don’t want to detract from that at all. Indeed, part of the irony in this parable is that Jesus is speaking to an occupied people in first century Judea – suffering under the brutal occupation of the Roman empire – and yet it is not the Roman occupiers that are the primary target of Jesus in this story about the occupation of the vineyard!
Yes, the cross that we wear around our necks, before it became a symbol of faith, was a symbol of the power of the empire. The cross was a reminder of the power of life and death that Rome had over you. It reminded you that they were great and that you were nothing because they could exact terrible violence on you at any time they chose, and the Jews suffered under that occupation.
Even so, it was not the Roman occupiers that Jesus was targeting in the parable, but the religious leaders and community leaders of Jews themselves! These people might not have had the power of Rome, but theirs was also a history of violence and persecution and, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, that violence is about to come to its own bloody climax in the crucifixion of God’s Messiah!
In other words, the history of the Jews mirrored the broader history of the world. It’s a story of multi-layered violence. The empire wages wars on defenceless communities, and then community leaders, in turn, exact violence on their defenceless subjects – as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen (or so it seems).
When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matthew 21:40). Yes, the hope for a final reckoning is there at the end of the story, and yet our reality is exactly as Jesus depicts it – the servants have been rejected, the Son has been killed, and the ownership of the vineyard seems to be very much in doubt! Meanwhile, the tenants run wild in their violence and stupidity!
For me, the Good News I find in this story is less in the hope for a final reckoning of the tenant farmers than it is in the character of the master. Yes, the master is hard to understand at times. He seems far too indiscriminate in who he lets take charge of his vineyard, and he seems all too tolerant in terms of the behaviour he puts up with. Even so, there are two things that come through to me very clearly in this story.
Firstly, the master will not give up on his vineyard, despite the fact that it seems to be a lost cause, and, secondly, that the master is committed to doing whatever it takes to regain control. No price is too great!
Hear the parable of the vineyard. It’s the parable we live every day as we try to make sense of the chaos, endure the violence, and await the final return of the master, who still has not given up on us! You who have ears, hear!
first preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 8th, 2017