Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21: 33-46
Let’s assume that the plain metaphor of this parable is as follows: God is the householder, the landowner of the vineyard. The first messengers are the prophets. The son is the Son, Jesus. The wicked tenets are the temple leaders who have forgotten their responsibility to the householder/landowner. The people who be given the vineyard are those who follow Jesus, regardless of the their ethnicity or tribal heritage.
Is God naïve? Why would God send Jesus, knowing the treatment the prophets had received? Why did God send more than, let’s say, three prophets. If the people refused to hear or follow them, with disastrous consequences for the prophets, why didn’t God quit? And why send the Son?
Pausing to reflect that the author of the gospel was not a reporter on the spot, but someone making sense of oral and written traditions some forty to fifty years old, this story is written to reflect what has happened in the community of those who followed Jesus. Some were rejected from temple fellowship. Some have been killed. Rome has destroyed Jerusalem by razing it- temple and all- to the ground.
If God was already able to perceive by the time of Isaiah that people do not want to bear the cost of discipleship, the work of tending the vineyard of creation, then why did God keep trying?
Perhaps the pursuit of reconciliation is fundamentally God’s nature. Not wrath, not grace without cost, not mere redemption, but reconciliation- the repair of the relationship and the restoration of its promises. The culture of the time of Jesus focuses on shame and honor. When we read a story from this period and this location, we look to see who would have expected honor and who would have received shame. A householder, the owner of the vineyard, would not have been remiss in sending his son because the tenets would have been expected to honor the son. It’s not naïveté, but the cultural reality that underscores this story. The tenets don’t inherit and they should honor the son, as a stand-in for the father, as the flesh of the father, as the father standing before them.
The fact that they don’t is not a reflection on God’s character, but on the character of people, on our own character. The truth is that we, as people, are fundamentally naïve in our perception of the world, our lives, our communities as belonging to us. We think of the hours, sweat, energy that we have put into work, home life, families, relationships… they are ours. When we are supposed to give all glory to God, to the Spirit, to Christ… we feel a little irritated.
Where’s my credit? Why isn’t there acknowledgement of my work? Why can’t I just bask in the glory for one minute? Because it’s not your vineyard. It’s not my vineyard. It’s not false modesty or self-deprecation to say, “God helped me” or “I couldn’t have done it without Christ”. It’s the truth. The hard truth. The costly truth of grace.
God is not naïve. God is wily. God has pursued the world at high cost, the death of Jesus on the cross, being the highest price. God still pursues, still seeks relationship. God is still about grace that allows us the gift of caring for, of stewarding, creation- plants, animals, people, the Way of Christ (all in our care). We cannot be naïve enough to claim sole credit for this work and believe ourselves to be in right relationship with God.
The hardest task we face, day by day, in remembering our baptisms, in living into communion and community, is accepting the reality that this is not our vineyard, that we are workers in God’s creation, that the kingdom and the power and the glory are his- now and forever. (And they always have been.) This is the cost of grace, of acknowledging the relationship, of accepting the truth about God’s power and person.
What will it look like to acknowledge God’s hand in all the areas of your life- especially the areas that you don’t normally associate with faith? What will it be like to realize that God’s pursuit of reconciliation with you, with all creation, happens mainly beyond these walls? What will it be like, this week, and in all that follow- to step out in faith, to be embraced by grace, and to serve others while saying, “This is God’s vineyard.”