The Battle for the Vineyard (A sermon on Matthew 21:33-40)

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.

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.

Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? (Matthew 21:33-40)
When I was little my dad used to read to me stories from the children’s Bible before I went to sleep at night – the parables of Jesus being particular favourites. I don’t think though that this parable was ever a part of my bedtime ritual.

The Parable of the Vineyard – it’s a story of violence. It does not have a ‘G’ rating!  It’s not the only violent story that Jesus told, but it must be one of His most violent, and hence it is a story that (while it might not make great bedtime reading) does seem particularly relevant to the world in which we live, for we do indeed live in violent times.

A lot of people have been saying to me lately, “Dave, I don’t remember it ever being this bad” and I know what they mean.

Perhaps we’d feel differently had we all lived through either of the World Wars. Not many of us here are even old enough to remember the Vietnam War, but it’s not simply an issue of the raw number of people being killed at the moment. We live in an age where governments seem to be becoming increasingly unapologetic about their acts of violence!

The brazen attitude of Al Baghdadi and his so-called “Islamic State” is particularly confronting. Christians are being crucified – a form of execution so barbaric that it hasn’t been practiced since Roman times. Meanwhile others are beheaded, and others simply rounded up and shot, including 80 Yazidi men only yesterday who apparently refused to convert!

Yes, this is all being done in the name of religion, of course, and that makes it especially perverse. These people are not only not apologizing but in fact see their violence as some perverse act of worship!

We don’t buy into this, of course. Indeed, Christians worldwide have been appalled by the violence of these Islamic extremists, as we’ve tended to be appalled by the violence of all Islamic extremists, and rightly so, though we seem to be far less condemning when it’s the Israeli Defense Forces that are doing the killing.

I was reading an article by American journalist and best-selling author, Chris Hedges, who writes first-hand reports from Gaza:

“I saw small boys baited and killed by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis. The soldiers swore at the boys in Arabic over the loudspeakers of their armoured jeep. The boys, about 10 years old, then threw stones at an Israeli vehicle and the soldiers opened fire, killing some, wounding others. I was present more than once as Israeli troops drew out and shot Palestinian children in this way. Such incidents, in the Israeli lexicon, become ‘children caught in crossfire.’” (from “Why Israel Lies”)

If you’ve been keeping up with my writings and my public speeches of late you’ll know that I’ve been speaking out as loudly as I can regarding this latest violence in Gaza, to the extent that I’ve attracted criticism from two leading Australian churchmen, both of whom suggested that I was ‘unbalanced’.

In one case it was suggested that I was too sympathetic to Muslims. In the other, that I wasn’t showing enough sympathy towards suffering Christians!  I think both critics equally missed the point! I’m really not concerned with what the religion is of either the people who are being killed or the people who are doing the killing. I just want the killing to stop!

It’s horrendous and it’s brazen, and so much of it seems so senseless, which again rings true to the 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.” (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 that is put into their care as it is on the callous disregard these people show towards 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?  Were they on drugs?  That’s the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think back on my role as de facto landlord for the church over the years, where we have had the odd odd tenant.

I well remember certain residents of our properties here screaming and carrying-on on the front lawn of the rectory, and while none of them ever became physically violent with me, things did get pretty hairy at times!

And, yes, that does reflect (at least in part) the sort of people that we have chosen to take on as tenants at certain times over the years, and perhaps we should have selected our tenants a little more carefully.  And yet surely that same question has to be directed here at the landowner. What was he thinking when he approved these people? Why didn’t he choose his tenants more carefully?  This guy’s tenants make the worst of ours look angelic!  These people don’t just withhold rent, they engage in deliberate acts of violence towards the landlord and towards his representatives!

And, as I say, these acts of violence are senseless. If these tenants had wanted to keep the 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 the tenants at least try to give the landlord the impression that his servants had never shown up.  If they were going to be murderers, why not be clever murderers – killing the servants quietly and disposing of their bodies secretly? No! These people seem to be completely unashamed in the way they behave! It’s as if they had forgotten that they had a master? Certainly they act as if he didn’t exist!

And yet the only thing more incomprehensible than the mindless violence 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.  So he sends a second and a third servant, and so on, into the vineyard, and some come back badly bloodied, and some never return at all, yet still the penny just doesn’t seem to drop!

And so instead of drawing a line after these tenants have treated a whole series of his trusted employees with utter contempt, the landlord, we are told, decides to send his son, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’

Whatever made him think that they would respect his son?  We could have told him what would happen. The indications were all there that these tenants were never going to show any respect to 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 an ongoing cycle of endless violence?  What sort of world is this? What sort of master is this?

And so, we’re told, the tenants deal with the landlord’s son with the same contempt with which they dealt with his servants. Indeed, they go all the way this time, not only brutalising him but killing him. 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 Jesus concludes His story with a question, ‘what is the owner of the vineyard going to do now?’  (Matthew 21:40)

The disciples are quick to reply ‘He’ll nuke the lot of ’em!’  But will he?  Maybe he has another son?

Jesus seems to accept the answer of the disciples – that there will be a final reckoning and that the tenants will have to face the consequences of their actions, and that justice will be done … but when?

And so the story closes and nothing is resolved.  The master now has no rent, no servants, no vineyard and now … no son!  ‘He who has ears, let him hear!’

It is painful to leave this story at this point, but this is of course exactly where we find ourselves in this story!

Yes, there will be a day when the vineyard will be at peace and we will all kick back and share in its produce together – that is our hope and that has always been our hope – but that is not the world that we live in right now!  Our reality is the one Jesus depicts – 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!

Yes, the master is still on the scene but the evil tenants are alive and well too, and so the killings and the violence and the senseless bloodshed continues! Isn’t it time the Master stood up and took control? Isn’t it time indeed?

Hear the parable of the vineyard! It’s the story of our world! It might not be bedtime reading, and yet no other parable of Jesus so graphically depicts the struggle that is at the core of human history.

It is a depressing story, for indeed the master has never been respected by His tenants. His servants have always been abused and killed, and even his own Son was despised and rejected.

It is a depressing story, and yet it is also a story of hope for it is a story of master who refuses to let go of His vineyard! This master indeed commits His own flesh and blood to the struggle for the vineyard and seems to be willing to do whatever it takes and to pay whatever it costs to see His vineyard restored.

But how long will that take? How much longer, O Lord, will the evil tenants be allowed to run wild and continue with their killing?

Yea, Amen! Let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

(Charles Wesley, “Lo, He comes with clouds descending”)

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 17th of August, 2014.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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