Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Vineyard

"Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when his vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?" They said to him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons."

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures:

'The stone which the builders rejected

Has become the chief cornerstone.

This was the LORD's doing,

And it is marvelous in our eyes'?

Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."

Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitudes, because they took him for a prophet.

- Matthew 21:33-46

In yesterday's reading and commentary, we explored ideas of faith and authority. From whence (or whom) comes authority? Where does Jesus get his authority? These are the questions that arise as he goes about his ministry in Jerusalem, first cleansing and healing in the temple, and then in confrontation with the leadership. He has given us the demonstration of the withered fig tree - a symbol of what it is to fail to produce spiritual fruits, which are the fruits of faith. In today's reading, Jesus continues his discussion about the fruits of faith, and gives us a new parable.

My study bible has a long note that expands upon this entire passage for today's reading. It reads as follows: "God the Father is the landowner who planted a vineyard. The tenant vinedressers are the religious leaders entrusted with the care of God's people. The landowner's servants (v. 34) are the prophets, sent by God to proclaim His word. For instead of tending the vineyard, the vinedressers had devoured it. Although they were obstinate toward His servants, God sent His Son (v. 37), our Lord Jesus Christ, whom they might honor. But in their greed and impiety they murdered the Son as well. The nation bearing the fruits (v. 43) of the Kingdom is the Church, the new people of God."

"Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when his vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit." Jesus illustrates "the world" as a vineyard, as he has before. We are given the idea that God has created this world as a vineyard for us - we lease it, and it is up to us to bear fruits. The vinedressers, my study bible notes, are the religious leaders entrusted with our care and teaching - that we bear those fruits, and that we see the world (the vineyard) in its proper context.

"And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them." My study bible says that these servants are the prophets, "sent by God to proclaim His word." They are destroyed by the vinedressers, who see the vineyard not in its proper context - as something that is leased into their care, but rather as something to exploit and devour, to take advantage of for their own gain. This is the image of the predatory leadership, which Jesus will call elsewhere "wolves in sheep's clothing." He will also apply warnings about such leadership for his own followers, about those who will "come in My name." We must always be on our guard in this respect.

"Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him." My study bible gives scriptural references for this passage, with which the temple leadership certainly would have been familiar, from Psalm 2, verses 8 & 2: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" and "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One." It is an image of those who try to hold on to what is not theirs, but what is leased into their care. It is clearly a reference to the Son, the Messiah.

"Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?" They said to him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder." The leadership understands the parable full well - agreeing with the conclusion about what vinedressers deserve. The quotation from scripture that Jesus gives refers back to Psalm 118 and also Isaiah chapter 28. So, once again, the Pharisees and chief priests will be entirely familiar with the scripture that Jesus quotes, and its prophetic importance. Clearly, in Jesus' mouth, these words amount to a testimony about judgment, and what will happen to those who seek to retain that vineyard by rejecting and killing the Son.

Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitudes, because they took him for a prophet. Finally, they understand: this parable is intended for them - they are the object of the stone, and its effects against those who reject it. They are the ones who seek to kill him. And, most importantly, he is clearly referring to himself as Son. They are outraged - but they are afraid of the crowds, of the people who have faith in Jesus as a prophet, a holy man. They must do their work covertly, in secret, rather than openly in the temple as Jesus preaches to the delight of the crowds.

I personally think that it is important that we take this parable in the context of what it means for us today. We understand the events of 2,000 years ago - but their importance, and this teaching, remain for us today. How do we think of our world? It is still that vineyard, I say, that Jesus uses to illustrate the importance of God's creation and the stewardship with which (especially) spiritual leadership is entrusted. Do we have leaders that care for the fruits of the Spirit? That take care to make sure their flock is fed with the good "daily bread" - our spiritual food - so that we produce the fruits God wants of us? Does our leadership understand what stewardship is - or does it use us as fodder for predatory impulses, to devour and to use for their own gain? Do we think of the world - and all that is in it - as that which is in our care? I do not ask this question in order to provoke scandal, but to ask in the spirit in which it is taught by Jesus. He warned his followers repeatedly that they must be the intelligent sheep, who are awake and aware, who watch and await his return. He warned us (as I wrote earlier, above) about "wolves in sheep's clothing" who would come in his name. So, we must still consider what it is to dwell in this vineyard, and to be his servants, and what we look for in our vinedressers. We are here to bear spiritual fruit - and the world is not our possession but rather something we "lease" - it is in our stewardship. How do we make certain that the spiritual values that we are taught in these gospels are passed on to the world? to our children, and the new generations that come into this vineyard? With what spiritual food are they fed, how are they tended? Are they taught in a loving way? With care for the spiritual goals of the Father and of his Son, that the Spirit carries in its anointing upon the world? These are the questions we ask. And once again, how do we respond when this spiritual light comes into our lives? Are there still prophets sent by God to remind us of these fruits? Unlike the leadership here in the gospel passage, can we "relent" when we know we've been in the wrong? Will we open our eyes and keep them focused on what is important? Do we understand righteousness and its authority? When we pray, we should ask to do and to see all these things, and to be led so that we, too, produce the fruits that are desired - and that feed the flock while the landowner is gone. The Spirit expands holiness for us every day - can we see it when it is in our midst? Will we respond to Its voice in our hearts?