The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C)
7 April 2019
Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may be the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus is in Jerusalem, “teaching in the Temple and preaching the good news,” preaching the Gospel. He has just been tested by the chief priests and scribes. They asked him by whose authority he was engaging in his ministry, and rather than giving them a straight answer (... no surprise), Jesus asks them a question in return: was the baptism of John human or divine? They think it is a trick, that whichever answer they give would be wrong and put them at a disadvantage, so they say they don’t know. Jesus tells them that because they have answered thusly, that he will not answer them, that he will not affirm for them by what authority he teaches.
This is the context for today’s parable about the landowner and the wicked tenants. Now, parables are interesting things. Often times they ask us to think quite broadly about the situation described—usually a commonplace, quotidian task like planting seeds, casting a fishing net, or going to look for something you may have misplaced—and draw connections between that human process and the nature of the kingdom of God.
Luke’s parables, like the one we heard today, are still drawn from real life, but they are a little different. They are complete short stories, with a clear narrative, like the tale we heard last week about the forgiving father. A landowner lets his fields and expects to paid with the produce. The tenants don’t want to pay and they beat those sent to collect and finally kill the son in the hope that they will, somehow, bully their way into possession of the property. This is not, however, the only difference from those parables of the Kingdom. In the text we are given clues that show us that we are in the world of stories that lend themselves more readily to what we might call “allegorical” interpretation in which the figures in the story align themselves with specific players in the divine story. We should not, therefore, shy away from what was most likely our initial reaction when we heard the tale sung just now, and take it that Jesus is speaking of God when he is speaking of the landowner.
Indeed, when after the tenants have beaten the servants and the landowner has decided to send his son, Luke quite intentionally calls the landowner “kyrios,” lord of the vineyard, in a likely reference to Isaiah (5:7) and the declaration “for the vineyard of the Lord of Sabaoth is the house of Israel.” To emphasise this divine connection further, this “lord of the vineyard” not only declares that he will send his son, but that this son, whom he sends, is his “beloved son,” the same title God gives Jesus at his baptism (3:22). It will be no surprise, therefore, that the son whom he sends should suffer, for this is the fate of prophetic beloved sons in Hebrew Scripture.
The story today, therefore, is one in which we are meant to identify the work of God with that of the owner of the vineyard who has given the care of his property, of the house of Israel, to tenants who are self-serving and greedy, who do not understand that they are working as stewards, tending the property for their Lord so that it may be handed down to the generations that come. Indeed, drawing further from the Greek text of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus, in interpreting the tale for the people pronounces, “the very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (LXX Ps. 117:22). These tenants have rejected their true calling, mishandled their responsibilities, served only themselves and because of this, the possession of this property will be taken away from them, its current leadership, and given to others. If the vineyard is the “house of Israel,” from the allusion to Isaiah, then the current leadership, the chief priests and scribes have likewise failed to act in the interest of God and the people, and they will have their stewardship taken away from them.
At this point, I want to make it clear that I believe that Luke is not talking here about the entire inheritance of Israel being taken from the Jews and given to the Gentiles. That is a well worn, anti-Jewish, later interpretation that has no place in our consideration of this text. While Jesus tells this story “to the people,” its message is pointedly directed against the chief priests and scribes, against the corrupt leadership who fail again and again to see the work of God in what Jesus is doing.
Jesus focusses on the corruption and fecklessness of the chief priests and scribes. These are the ones threatened by Jesus. These are the ones who recognise God’s authority and power working in Jesus, but who can not acknowledge Jesus, lest they loose their own grasp on the power they possess in the world, the access to religious experience. In the words of our lesson from Isaiah:
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
This is what God does. This is what Jesus is doing. He is bringing something new, something unexpected, and the rulers can’t stand it.
In no small measure these leaders fear all that Jesus brings in challenging the established order of complacent rulers because the change he demands is accompanied by uncertainty and risk. Jesus, the beloved son who suffers at the hands of cruel men before his resurrection, calls us to offer up ourselves, even to the point of suffering and death, because he knows that death will not ultimately stand in the face of the love he brings. In our Epistle today, Paul recognises, this: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” This is what the leaders are unwilling to do. They can not imagine giving up their power. They will not share in suffering on account of the mighty works God is unfolding.
The story today of the Lord of the Vineyard and the selfish tenants helps explain to the people, right in the lead up to the first Palm Sunday and the unfolding of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, what is happening and what is at stake. God has entrusted our world to us to care for it. Those who have come to possess power over this trust have not lived up to the responsibility they have been given and have even tried to usurp the authority of the rightful Lord of this Vineyard. They have succumbed to the temptation that Jesus refused when offered rule over the kingdoms of the known world by the devil. These leaders, Jesus tells us, will be swept away and will be replaced with those who will act rightly, act in alignment with the aims of the Kingdom of God, which are reconciliation, peace, justice, and love.
We are the ones who have been shown the kingdoms of the known world, as Jesus was in his temptation, but we have been offered a share in their rule on behalf of the Lord of the Vineyard, who is our God. Rather than work the land in our self-interest, serving the devil, as it were, we are called to this task by Jesus to cooperate with this project and not struggle against it. We have been given a treasure, this vineyard, and we are called to tend it. We have the power and authority in us to make a success of it, for we have the example of Jesus who refused self-interested earthly power, who listened to the Word of God incarnate, who tended God’s vineyard justly and with the future infolding of the Kingdom of God in mind. Let us tend the vineyard and render our proper tribute to God our Lord in thanksgiving and praise, in love and acts of justice.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Lenten Feria, 5 April 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume