This is a strange story. We are told that unlike most parables this one is an allegory. I wonder do you find the imagery as unattractive as I do. Would you tell a story to illustrate the nature of God in which God is portrayed as an absentee landlord-who demands his rents-and sends agents to get them at grave risk to their own safety?
We read that we should understand these agents to be the prophets sent by God to restore his people to their rightful obedience. They bring his message but the messengers are spurned. No wonder it’s spurned when the messengers bring rent demands with them.
And finally God sends his son –this is Jesus. He is not respected either. He is taken, killed and cast out of the vineyard. Why do the tenants do this? According to the text they kill the son in order to have the vineyard for themselves. There is said to be an echo here of some aspects of Palestinian land law.
It is said by those who know about such things that the story gives us a glimpse of the social world of the Galilean peasant. Harassed by high rents and absentee landlords and perpetually on the verge of revolt the Galilean had the reputation of being a tricky fellow. And does that not make the imagery even more unattractive. Just consider what it would have been like preaching the gospel by this parable to Irish tenants in the last century.
However consider the allegory in another way. What does a tenant wish for above all else. Surely to be free. Free of rent. Free of duty and service to a Lord, a master or even a parent. To be able to say to the boss stuff your pension. I want to be my own man. I want to come of age.
How can we do this? Well we could kill the boss and seize his property. Start a red revolution. Or in Freudian mythology one can kill ones own parent. In religion you bring in a reformation by overturning all the old images-sending the priests packing or perhaps we could proclaim the death of God himself.
Such tenants are familiar characters-rebellious children-revolutionaries-the discontented worker or peasant. In short we see in the tenants the human condition.
But in Christian understanding this boss, this master is different. It’s not as if he’s a benevolent despot not at all. This is a master who wills the freedom of his slaves-who seeks only to serve not to oppress-who seeks the fruit from the tenants not for his benefits but for theirs. A Master who offers his people the lives of his servants and at last that of his own son.
Of course the tenants don’t see it that way. They see only the burdens, the oppressive rules and restrictions, the dead hand of law. And they want to kick over the traces and break away from all that. What’s the point of the church: dreary ceremonies, a fuddy duddy substitute parent-the crimping restrictions of custom and heritage? Let’s do our own thing. Let’s spend Sunday in bed reading the papers.
Christianity is a message about suffering love. God is love. The world itself is an expression of God’s creative love. This is how we should understand the vineyard-although another image one that we might feel happier with is that of a garden. Gardens are a nuisance but for most people they are symbols of creativity and love. Our creativity and that of God-our love and care but God’s as well.
And when God looks to his people for the fruit of the love he has expended what is he looking for.
Surely for signs that love has born fruit in yet more love. What St Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Love creates love in return. Spend something of yourself and you will be enriched. You will be more of the person you were always meant to be. Love grows if give it away. Costly love bears fruit in renewed lives. This is the message of Easter.
In the Easter and Passion stories all this is laid before us in dramatic form.
The king who comes to his people-humble and riding upon an ass.
The master who kneels at the foot of his disciples to wash their feet.
The prophet, the man of God who is abused and reviled and yet does not open his mouth to reply.
The death of the messiah on the cross.
And everything in Christianity is based on this. The death of Jesus isn’t a tragic postscript to a successful teaching career. It’s central to the entire story that’s why it occupies such a large part of each gospel. What Jesus preached is important of course but what is really central is the life revealed in the death of this man.
The Christian story is one of mysterious love- a love so strong that it leads to complete self offering on the part of God himself. He was rich yet for our sakes he became poor. Here was perfection yet he became sin for us. Here is a story of status abandoned of kingship reduced to nothing, flogged, crucified, cast out.
This is the costly love that is offered to us. The love that we can embrace or reject. We can do as the tenants do-live for ourselves-claim our inheritance-demand our rights. Live as women and men come of age.
That’s always a possibility and in a worldly sense it’s quite an attractive possibility.
But the other possibility is always there to grasp the foot of Christ’s’ cross and take the love God offers us in him.
To live no longer for ourselves but for others and to bring forth fruit. Those gracious fruits that the tenants failed to bring forth.