Sunday April 1, 2001
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead
Tenants in the Vineyard
“A man planted a vineyard, and let it out to tenants…”
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Before we look at Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard, we need to understand the setting in which it occurs in the Gospel.
Jesus has finished his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem and has made his triumphal entry into the Holy City. The entry provoked those who were inclined to deny his spiritual authority. He rode into the city on an ass’s colt, like the ancient kings of Israel. The people spread branches of palm along his way and shouted Hosanna, and when the Pharisees told Jesus to restrain the people, he refused. Even worse from his adversaries’ viewpoint, Jesus entered the temple precincts and drove out the moneychangers.
Just before Jesus told the Parable of the Vineyard, the scribes and Pharisees made a direct challenge to his ministry: “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who is it who gave you this authority.” The stage was now set for the telling of the parable.
The image of the vineyard would have been powerful to Jesus’ hearers. The grape vine and vineyard were commonplaces of life, and they are mentioned throughout the Bible, frequently in a symbolic sense. The fruitful vine was the emblem of prosperity and peace; more particularly it symbolized the chosen people of God. They were the vine that God had taken out of Egypt and planted in a choice land.
The great prophet Isaiah concluded his Song of the Vineyard this way: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” (Is. 5:1-7) These words would have been well known to Jesus’ hearers, especially the scribes and Pharisees.
Who are the servants sent by the owner to gather from the tenants the owner’s rightful harvest of fruit? They are the faithful servants of God, especially the prophets.
Finally, and most importantly, what is at issue between the owner of the vineyard and the tenants? Why do the owner’s servants encounter such resistance and hostility? Why are they turned away empty-handed? The answer appears when at last the owner sends, in Jesus’ words, “my beloved son; it may be that they will respect him.”
Far from it: “But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him that the inheritance may be ours.’”
So the issue between the owner and the tenants is the very ownership itself.
The extraordinary thing about this parable is that the scribes and Pharisees immediately lived up to their part in it. They straightaway took counsel among themselves on how to destroy Jesus while avoiding the wrath of the multitudes who believed in him and whose response was honest shock: “God forbid.” It is as though the parable itself served as the dramatic trigger of its own enactment!
The scribes and Pharisees are not the only religious leaders made uncomfortable by Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard. Here Jesus discloses himself not only as the “beloved son” of the owner of the vineyard, but also as the Prophet confronting the people of God past, present and future. The Parable of the Vineyard is not only for ancient Israel; it is also for the Church of Christ, and it serves as an allegory for the Church in her ongoing struggle to be faithful in her witness and fruitful in her service.
Clergy in all times and places are put on notice by the Parable of the Vineyard. Our own Anglican Articles of Religion speak directly to this issue of ownership and accountability in the vineyard of the Church. Listen to Article XXVI:
“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
“Nevertheless, it appertaineth unto the discipline of the Church that…evil Ministers …being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.” (Book of Common Prayer, Articles of Religion, XXVI.) So it is, as in the Parable, the owner will come and destroy the wicked tenants, and give his vineyard to others.
So Jesus is the owner of the vineyard, the Lord of the Church. He has a right to expect faithful service and a harvest of the fruits of the Spirit. His clergy minister in his name, not their own. The clergy are tenants with a trust on loan. They run the owner’s errands and serve his purposes. The wonder is, even bad clergy serve Christ’s purposes and do not make void the grace of his Word and Sacraments, because his institutions and promises transcend their flaws and their foolishness. The Church is indeed human and is marred by sin. But she is not an invention of the clergy. She is the Bride of Christ her Bridegroom. She is also the vineyard which he himself planted and owns and oversees until the end of time, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God.
The lay people are part of this story too. It is not enough, like the first hearers of the parable, simply to gasp, “God forbid.” The lay people (that’s you!) have a responsibility to become informed about the faith, to make the effort to be faithful, and to bear fruit. In other words, we are all called, clergy and lay people, to work together, to support one another, and to yield faithful witness and fruitful service.
My brothers and sisters in Christ: We are now in “deep Lent,” on the threshold of Holy Week. As we once again contemplate the Passion of Our Lord, let us remember that we are his vineyard, and he expects a harvest from us in due season. Let me finish by quoting the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, and as I do, think of Saint Thomas Church, so blessed in its heritage and opportunity:
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and he planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed a wine vat in it, and he looked for it to yield grapes….” I will break off here, because it is up to us to decide what the Lord will find.