I once heard one of favorite priests refer to Jesus as a “Wily Fox” – that image didn’t quite mesh with my image of Jesus: a loving, mild-mannered man with warm brown eyes – always ready to heal those hurt, tell an intriguing story, or reprimand someone gently as he traveled about doing his ministry. “Wily Fox” – that one took some getting used to. Over the time since then, I’ve discovered that I like that reference to Jesus: it is very accurate in the parables when the Temple authorities are trying to trap Jesus into saying something incriminating that they could use against him. Today’s story is no exception! The Gospel today falls right in the middle of three parables Jesus is telling: last week we had the Two Disobedient Sons, and next week we will visit a wedding banquet.
The image of the vineyard was one that everyone sitting and learning from Jesus would understand readily – the vineyard represents Israel. Israel thought of itself as the vineyard of God and there are several Biblical references to confirm that, especially in Isaiah. This vineyard/Israel connection was so inherent that the Temple where Jesus was telling this story had a beautiful, golden, richly carved grapevine sculpted around the door that led in from the porch. Herod had commissioned the golden vine & wealthy Jews had embellished it with jeweled grapes, golden leaves and other precious materials.
Being that wily fox, Jesus had everyone’s attention as he began his parable. He began the story with the same words used in the beginning of the story in Isaiah. BUT the story in Isaiah speaks of the failure of the grapes & God’s sadness. Jesus’ story instead focuses on the failure of the farmers of the vineyard. This is one of the easiest of the parables to follow because Jesus so thinly disguised the connections: The man, the owner is God. The vineyard of course is Israel. The tenants are the leaders of Israel. The servants are the prophets, and the Son, as we all know & believe in our hearts, is Jesus. It is an allegory.
Jesus sets the stage by telling us that the leaders (the chief priests and the Pharisees here) had begun to think of Israel as “theirs” – they felt ownership of the vineyard and it had festered to the point of leading to violence. The people listening then & we listening now can easily remember some of the prophets who had been “beaten & tossed out”: Stephen, Zechariah, and most recent to Jesus’ time, John the Baptist. These prophets had been so threatening to the status quo, to their sense of ownership, that the leaders had disposed of them.
Finally, the violence comes to a head – the owner asks “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” Jesus, that wily fox, certainly knew that his followers knew him to be the Beloved Son – God had said so at his Baptism. He is prophesying that the leaders are so entrenched in their ideas of leadership that they will kill him also. He also sets up the hierarchy of the situation: the prophets were servants, but he is the son. The leaders were tenants, but he is the heir – the joint owner with the Father. Their ultimate crime would be murder – homicide - deicide.
This entire story is under girded with God’s love for us – he sent prophet after prophet, then his own son, God Incarnate, to bring us into relationship with him. Jesus then asks: “what will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” The killing of tenants and the giving of the vineyard to others could be interpreted as the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple only 40 years later.
So do you think the Leaders got the message? The end of the Gospel states that the scribes & chief priests realized the Jesus had told this story against them and that they wanted to lay hands on him right then. They knew that Jesus was threatening their ownership of the vineyard! They got it – but obviously they didn’t believe it. They stood in the temple with the great golden vine gleaming in the sunlight, the Lord of the temple right in front of them, and the vineyard-clad slopes of Israel surrounding the temple and they rejected him.
As we continue to march through Ordinary Time – our own time of growth and harvest, let us examine the fruits of our lives. What are we to harvest and tithe back to the owner of the vineyard? Individually, we can look back to our Hebrew Testament reading today to see the Commandments spelled out there. We can also think about the Fruits of the Spirit described in Galatians. I love that passage so much, I have the bracelet to remind me. How about as the tenants of the vineyard of Wichita Falls? Showing our fruits here might be as simple and as tough as teaching the Story – teaching God’s Word to the least, the lost and the last, by visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry and offering a cool drink to those who thirst. Everytime we are led to reach out, we are showing our faithfulness.
I am not the Owner of this vineyard – I was never meant to be - & neither are you. By being the tenants, we can be grateful for the vineyard we’re allowed to lease – more land certainly than we could afford on our own. We can be grateful for a generous owner who only asks for fruits – and asks us to respect his beloved son whom he has sent to us. We are but guests in the vineyard. Although we can see the end of the growing season, the harvest is not in yet – what fruits will we have to give over to Jesus?
Audio will be found in the PodBean Player on the right sidebar, usually by Sunday evening.