The battle for the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-40)


“We were told that this [operation] was against armed people and against people climbing on our armed vehicles. Our APCs (armed personnel carriers) were cruising 24 hours a day close to buildings (in Jenin), waiting for kids to climb on them, trying to dislodge the top -mounted MG (machine gun) and to shoot them.

We had fixed positions inside Jenin’s casbah, the APCs were on the streets, below us. They were moving continuously. We were expressly told that we were just waiting for someone to climb on an APC, and ordered to shoot to kill. We quickly understood that we weren’t expected to deal with armed people as no armed Palestinian would roam the streets with so many APCs around. They (our authorities) were looking for children or plain people daring to climb on an APC or on any other armoured vehicle. We understood that from the talks with our officers.

After a day or two, a 12-year old kid climbed on one of the APCs. There were lots of guesses about his age. First they said he was 8, later, that he was 12. I don’t know. In any case he climbed on an APC and one of our sharpshooters killed him. I already mentioned, we were looking for kids. The neighbouring company also had an incident with a kid or teenager, climbing an APC, who was also killed. Some of us said that this whole operation was unnecessary as its purpose was to kill kids, while others said that it was very good.”

This report is from a sergeant in the Israeli Defence Forces, working as part of the occupying force in Jenin – an area in the West Bank of Palestine, best remembered for the terrible massacre that took place there in April 2002, where the Israeli army assaulted the Jenin refugee camp with helicopters, tanks, bulldozers, and troops.

This testimonial is part of a collection that I believe is about to be published on paper, but which is already available in electronic format. It’s called ‘Breaking the Silence’, and it includes about 80 pages of similar testimonials. It is the second collection of testimonials that this ‘Breaking the Silence’ group has published.

As you know, I have a particular interest in the welfare of our Palestinian brethren, which started through my friendship with Israeli peace activist, Morde Vanunu. Even so, I am resisting the temptation to read more excepts from this collection, because I suspect that, after two or three such accounts, most of us will start to switch off.

That sounds terrible, I know, but the truth is, we are all a little to familiar with this sort of violence. Violence is a part of our world, and we have learnt to accept that, particularly when it is happening somewhere a long way away.

Perhaps that isn’t quite right? Perhaps it is not that we accept it, but that we switch off because we prefer not to think about it, as we fear that it is getting too close.

We know what is going on in the Middle East, and we know that we in Australia are directly connected to the bloodshed in Iraq. Perhaps we simply do not like to dwell upon this horizon of violence that seems to be moving towards us.

The truth is of course that we are not strangers to violence in this land either. Even if we have thus far been spared public ‘terror attacks’, we know that violence – criminal, social and domestic – is a part of our landscape, and is certainly part of our history, as it is part of all human history. Perhaps it should not surprise us then, that when Jesus tells parables about our world, so many of them are stories of violence.

Jesus said, “listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a wall around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went abroad.”

Thus begins the tragic story of a beautiful vineyard that gradually goes to seed through the mismanagement of its tenants, though the focus here 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 harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his produce. But the farmers took his servants and beat one, killed another, and attacked another with stones. Again, he sent other servants to them, a greater number than the first, but the tenant farmers treated them the same way.”

The behaviour of the tenants seems a little crazy! Why would any tenants act with such total disregard for their relationship with their landlord?

Of course, I’ve acted as de facto landlord for the church on more than one occasion, and so I have some idea of the reality of dealing with bad tenants. We’ve had residents of our properties here screaming and carrying-on on the front lawn of the rectory, and while none of them has ever become physically violent with me as yet, we‘ve certainly had to face that possibility from time to time.

Of course, that reflects in part the sorts of people that we’ve chosen to offer hospitality to. Perhaps we should have chosen our tenants more carefully. And yet surely the same question has to be asked here of the landowner. Why didn’t he choose his tenants more carefully? For this guy’s tenants make the worst of our tenants look very good indeed! These people don’t just withhold rent, they engage in deliberate acts of violence towards the landlord and towards his representatives. What’s more, they are senseless acts of violence.

If these tenants had wanted to keep the master at a distance, why didn’t they give him some token amount to satisfy him. If they’d wanted to fool the master into thinking that his messengers never arrived, why didn’t they kill them quietly. Perhaps they forgot that they had a master? They certainly showed him no respect.

Of course, the only thing more incomprehensible than the mindless aggression of the tenants is the naïve optimism of the landlord, who keeps assuming that things are going to get better! The penny just doesn’t seem to drop!

Instead of working it out, after these tenants treated his trusted employees with utter contempt, the landlord, we are told, decides to send his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’

What ever 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 was it that got into the landlord’s head that made him think, ‘yeah … it’s worth another shot’.

What sort of landlord is this? What sort of set-up is this, where the master just puts up with this ongoing cycle of violence? What sort of world are we talking about here? This is our world, isn’t it? This is our history, isn’t it? These tenants seem strangely familiar, do they not?

And so, we’re told, the tenants deal with the landlord’s son with the same contempt with which they dealt with his servants – surprise, surprise. Indeed, they go one step further and after brutalising the son, they kill him!

This, as I say, comes as no surprise to us. This is how the vineyard operates. We know that. This is the sort of treatment the landlord has always received at the hands of his tenants. What made him think that his son would fair any better?

And so Jesus asks, ‘what is the owner of the vineyard going to do now?’

The disciples are quick to reply ‘He’ll nuke the lot of ’em!’ But will he? Maybe he has another son at home, or other servants whose lives he is ready to sacrifice?

Jesus accepts the answer of the disciples. There will be a final reckoning. The tenants will have to come to terms with their actions. 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 no son! ‘He who has ears, let him hear!’

Perhaps it’s the master’s own fault. Why didn’t he stand up and act like a master sooner? Why did he just send one servant after another to get beaten up and rejected, and then his own son!

What sort of master is this, really? His servants have been rejected, His son dead, the vineyard’s ownership in doubt, and His response is still in question! Meanwhile, the tenants run wild in their violence and stupidity.

And yet this is where we find ourselves today! Here we are, 21 centuries since these words were spoken, and we are still at the same point in the story. The vineyard is still in business, 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!

I said at the beginning that I would not bore you with more stories from ‘Breaking the Silence‘. Let me now amend that by sharing with you one more story, from a navy captain, working from the coast of the Gaza Strip. He writes:

“We bombarded again, in cooperation with attack choppers. This time the target was to shoot at escapees. And again, without any positive identification of the figures we were shooting at. And lately, there’s been no distinction between armed and unarmed people.

You don’t know who is there. People from surrounding areas have started to come, helping the injured, while we continue shooting at the same area. We don’t aim at anyone specifically, but we shoot at running figures with an objective of hitting as many as possible, like in a Video game. Click, click, click! That’s it.

And we had permission for what we did. I repeat; as a commander of my boat I wanted to shoot under the circumstances. In my eyes that was legitimate. Otherwise I would have refused, saying that it was not legitimate and would not have given the order to shoot. It passed all ranks, and in their eyes it was legitimate. Now I see the whole issue as problematic. Very problematic. “

It’s a testimonial from a man of integrity who is struggling with what he has done. “Now I see the whole issue as problematic”, he says, recoiling from his involvement in what now seems to him to have been senseless violence.

And it is problematic. From whatever angle we approach these matters, they are very problematic.

These men get their orders come from much higher up, and even when we do know who started the spiral of violence, it can still be very difficult to know who is to blame. It’s easy for us to stand back and see the senseless futility of it all, but knowing how to sort it all out is very problematic.

And so the battle for the vineyard continues, and the killings go on. Servants continue to be sent out to contest the vineyard, and they are still being met with violence. And still we have no idea when it will all come to an end.

Yet some things we do know. We do know:

  1. That violence, pain and seemingly fruitless struggle has always characterised the ‘battle for the vineyard’.
  2. That the master is not deterred by this. He is still not willing to let his vineyard go.
  3. That it has already cost the master a great deal to stay involved with His vineyard, and that He is willing to pay that price.

This is the story of the vineyard. It is a story that takes us from the time when women and men first began to tear away at each other and tear away from their creator. It is a story that takes us through the blood and suffering of Christ on the cross, and finds us here today, as blood continues to be spilt, as the battle for the vineyard continues to rage around us.

When will it all end? We do not know. But we do know that the master has committed his own flesh and blood to the struggle, and we do believe that none of this bloodshed has been meaningless – not when our blood has been mingled in with the master’s own.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

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


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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