The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - October 7, 2017
Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:33-46 

Sermon Title: The Vineyard

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     If you were a member of the early church, this parable of Jesus would speak to you.  It appears in all 3 synoptic gospels, one of very few that do, and viewed in one way, it validates your early Christian views.  The priests and Pharisees were the keepers of the temple, tenants of the vineyard of God.  And the vineyard owner set them up well, beautiful vineyard, wine press, watch tower, gave them all this stuff and only asks, when it is time, for a small portion of all they gather.  God gave the early Jews a beautiful temple, which was probably destroyed before this was written down.  God gave them rules and laws and called them God’s Chosen.  But despite God sending prophets and teachers and even God’s own son Jesus, they still don’t get it.  Therefore God is going to come and kill all the Jewish people and only Christians will be left.  If you are a tiny, struggling early church, this is good news.  There is a reason to stay together and keep on doing what you are doing. 

     But today, or at least in 2010, Christianity has about 2.2 billion followers; about 31% of the world’s population say that they are Christian.  We are the world’s largest religion.  Islam is second largest with about 1.6 billion followers, about 23% of the world’s population.  There are about 15 million Jewish people in the world, which is about 0.2% of the world’s population.  When the sides were flipped, and maybe 33% of the people in the Middle East were Jewish, and 0.2% of the population was Christian, then this anti-Semitic reading works great.  It has been used that way for centuries. 

     You probably know by now that you can pull little bits out of the Bible to support almost any view you have.  The debates about LGBT are a prime example.  In a 2 minute conversation, bits can be thrown in to support anything.  But when you dig into those passages, look at the original Greek or Hebrew, how those words were used in other writings of the time, and the whole context, you start to discover that perhaps those passages, as translated into English, mean something pretty different than what the early writers might have meant. 

     If you felt persecuted by the Jews, this passage could be pulled out and used.  Jesus said that God, the vineyard owner, is going to come back and punish the tenants, the Jews.  Well, actually Jesus didn’t say that, he left it open for those hearing to interpret it as they felt it applied to them.  And, taken that way, many preachers this week will be talking about how our churches are now the vineyard, and we are now the tenants.  This is not a bad approach to take.  God has given us this beautiful church, this great town to work in, and God sent prophets and teachers and even Jesus, and do we really listen to what God is trying to tell us?  Earlier this year we spent a few weeks talking about the Sermon on the Mount.  It is long, so over several weeks I tried to pull it apart a bit and be honest about what Jesus was telling those who heard it, to do.  Of course, we have translations, oral tradition handed down;  maybe Jesus didn’t say this exactly as it is written here.  But do any of us read that and say, “This is the way I am going to live, and then follow through?” Probably not.  Just that love your enemy part, that is really, really hard to do. 

     Other pastors this week have read this as an environmental message.  God has prepared this vineyard, we have beautiful fruit, and our job, as tenants is to keep it up.  If they ignore it, throw our garbage out of the windows of the house, don’t prune and fertilize and do all that we should be doing, the vineyard is not going to produce.  And God’s portion is not a burden.  The vineyard owner didn’t come to take everything;  he sent slaves to collect his portion, a small part, probably figured out in advance.  A portion of what they produce.  If we abuse this vineyard that God has given us to care for, and then don’t even give God a part of that, we are the bad tenants and will suffer God’s judgment.

     But I want to suggest a different reading this morning.  Jesus ends the parable with a question “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  We automatically think that the owner is going to go and get what he is due.  But the owner should have already done that.  First slaves get killed by the tenants, you are going to send more?  That is not really the best move.  The tenants have a serious problem; there is no way that they are going to get away with this.  The vineyard owner obviously wants his cut, his portion, and the tenants somehow think that if they kill some slaves that the owner is going to give up?  Maybe the owner will just forget about this really nice vineyard he set up?  Maybe the tenants are going to keep it all? Not a chance. 

     What would you do in a similar situation?  Many of you have either rented a house or apartment or leased a house or apartment to someone else.  When you don’t pay your rent, or as a landlord you don’t get paid the rent due, what happens?  Well, you try to work it out, can you pay me next week?  Maybe you are going through a hard time, I can accept a bit less this month just to help you get back on your feet.  But after 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, a year, at some point your patience is going to run out.  You will ask them to leave, and if they refuse you will call the police and a lock smith, their belongings will be set on the front lawn and the locks will be changed.  If you are on the other side and decide not to pay rent, your landlord will do that to you.  Now, granted, in those days you cannot just call the police and set up a time for them to meet you at the vineyard to kick out the tenants, change the locks to the gate, but the owner was rich, he could have sent armed men to go and kick them out, stand guard, do not let them back in.  Find new tenants.

     The vineyard owner, after hearing his first slaves got killed, sent more.  These tenants are desperate, the owner has to know that these slaves are not going to be given the part and come back; they are also going to be killed.  And what happens to those slaves?  they also were killed.  Beat, killed and stoned.  Not a simple killing; there was a fight, this was not a pretty picture.  And so the owner decides to send his son.  The tenants thought “Oh, his heir, we will kill him to get his inheritance.”  Not going to happen, the tenants have to know that.  Really, the tenants are desperate and not that bright.  One commentator described it like a Ponzi scheme, starts small, then gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and eventually it is going to come crashing down.  Those tenants kill some slaves, then more slaves, then the owner’s son, and this is not going to end badly?  

     But we don’t know what the vineyard owner will really do. Jesus never tells us.  Maybe he will send one of his other sons?  Maybe he will hire a negotiator to work out a new, fair rent.  Our minds jump to violence, as quickly as the early hearers of that parable.  We love justice.  Black man gets shot by a white police officer, the courts say the police officer is innocent, then a black man takes revenge by shooing a white police officer.  The white police officer takes revenge by shooing a black man, and again, the black men take revenge by shooing a white police officer.  Gangs sometimes do the same thing, one member kills someone from another gang, and then that gang kills someone from the first gang.  When you go back, nobody remembers where it all started.  And even today, at least in the United States, an acceptable punishment for killing someone is death. 

     But maybe God does not believe that way.  We all know that Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of heaven is an upside down world, where the first are last and the last are first, where the “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Maybe our God, our landlord, will not come and kill us tenants or even kick us out.  Maybe God wants to have a relationship with us. 

     Why did the landlord send slaves?  To keep that relationship with his tenants, give and take, I gave you the land, I want a little bit back from what I gave you, that makes sense.  When those are killed, rather than killing the tenants, the vineyard owner tries again.  I really want to have a relationship with these people, let me send more, maybe they can collect what I am rightfully owed, and that relationship will be strengthened.  When that does not work, I will put my own son on the line; this relationship is so important to me, that I will risk my own son being killed in order to build that relationship.  And then, we don’t know. Jesus never tell us.  Does the vineyard owner finally give up?  Forget it, I will send people to kill those tenants. I will send someone to kick them out and never let them back in.

     Or maybe God calls us to build that relationship.  We often think of ourselves as the tenants, and maybe we are, but we might also be some of the slaves.  We are called to go out and tell others about this amazing God we know, who wants to be in relationship with you.  Is there a cost?  Yes, of course, but it is not unreasonable.  If you do what you are supposed to do, tend the vineyard, the harvest will be plentiful and what we must give to our landlord is a small portion of all that we have been given. 

     The Gospel is also called the Good news, and when I was in seminary we were always asked “What is the good news in this passage?”  This passage should not be used to make us better than anyone else, or certainly not in an anti-Semitic way.  It probably is good sometimes to consider that, as tenants, we are called to care for the church, the communities we find ourselves in, or in a wider sense in this wonderful vineyard world that God has given us.  Often we fail in each of these areas. Also important to know, even when we don’t totally fail, we can do better.  But I really read this passage as a way of God saying that God wants to be in relationship with us.  God sent us prophets and teachers and even God’s only son.  And I believe that God is still sending us teachers and prophets, and will continue to do that in order to build a relationship with all of God’s children, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and everyone else.  Maybe we are called to tend the vineyard, maybe we are called to tell others about this wonderful landlord we have that you can work for also.  Maybe we are called to do both.