A Note on Storytelling Techniques
Once again, Jesus returns to the idea of a vineyard and a vineyard owner when telling his parable. There are two obvious reasons for this. It is not – however – because Jesus lacks imagination – in fact, throughout the Gospels we can see that if Jesus had any earthly faults, a lack of imagination was not one of them. Instead, he speaks of a vineyard because this is a well known aspect of life in first century Palestinian life.
This is true for any good story or parable in any location or time period. If Jesus came to Florence today, he would get a lot farther with people if he talks about local farm culture. I know many of us grew up on farms – or near farms – and some of us even have goats to this day! We understand this. We may live in a nice residential town just off of Northampton, but most of us have this shared cultural experience. At the very least, we all know where to go to pick the best pumpkins for Halloween or where to find homemade ice cream on a hot September day.
If Jesus came and started talking to us about the trials and tribulations of coal mining in Pennsylvania, our hearts would twinge, but we wouldn’t have personal points of reference. Coal mining is a completely foreign concept to us, unless we’ve turned in our central heaters or pellet stoves for coal recently.
So, when Jesus talks about vineyards and landowners, his listeners would nod their heads and know exactly what he was talking about. While vineyards undoubtedly symbolized wealth and good living, it was still honest living and a sign of national pride.
The second reason Jesus sets his parable in a vineyard (as he has done many, many times) is because repetition is key. While some men (though very little women) could read and write, this was an oral culture. Knowledge was passed through stories and parables like this – and they were memorable if key phrases or ideas were repeated again and again.
It’s basic human psychology. If your sister mentions she’s thinking of having Thanksgiving at hers once offhand over the phone, you may forget about it. If she repeats it the next two phone calls, reaffirming the idea, you are much more likely to remember.
The same is true with shopping lists (if you cannot write them down). Your husband mentions milk, you might forget, but if he says something before breakfast, mentions it again on his way to work, and you repeat it under your breath once or twice, you are far more likely to remember.
So, we begin with a vineyard and a common theme.
Jesus is speaking to his followers as well as the chief priests and Pharisees.
Like last time, he cannot quite say what he wishes to politically, so he dresses it up in a parable. Despite this, the chief priests know he’s talking about them (or, rather criticizing them) and want to arrest Jesus for it (Matthew 21:46). The parable masks Jesus’s message so that it’s more difficult for this to happen.
Also, it’s a good story – it resonates with the people because they understand the setting, they’ve heard the repetition, and who doesn’t like a good story?
The Vineyard at Face Value
As always, we’re going to begin with the parable without reading any meaning into it. And, as always, it tells us certain things about life in first century Palestine that are very different from modern America.
To begin with we have a landowner – a blanket term for anyone who owns land in a large enough amount. We know straight out that we’re not dealing with a tradesman, a craftsman (Jesus was the son of a carpenter, if you recall), or a starving fisherman (like some of his disciples). He’s also not a priest or an elder, so he is not part of the religious hierarchy in Palestine. Instead, we know that he is a man of means. He is wealthy enough to be able to purchase land (a rare feat in a country that was under the thumb of foreign occupiers) or inherit it.
We know this landowner does several things:
- He plants a vineyard. (He is supplying the land with Palestinian grapes as opposed to foreign wine. Remember that this is a culture where children begin drinking watered down wine at a very young age as opposed to other drinks (like water or goat’smilk). Also remember that wine is prized and a large part of religious ceremonies.)
- He puts a fence around it. (This is easy enough to explain. Not only is he marking his boundaries so that the men who own adjoining plots don’t interfere with his crop or claim it for their own, he does this to protect it from outside wildlife and even from thieves.)
- He dug a wine press. (This is practical and tells us explicitly that the vineyard owner plans to make wine with his grapes.)
- He built a watchtower. (This is a precautionary measure but one that shows forethought. Whoever is watching over the grapes – even with a fence around the property – would need a higher vantage point to spot potential threats, whether they are thieves or wildlife who could mess with the crop. Also take note that it seems commonplace enough that Jesus mentions it almost as a “throwaway” without further comment.)
Once he is done, he goes about his life and rents it out. Now, the rent wouldn’t be money. Whoever his tenants are would owe him a certain percent of the grapes. So, if they they had 100 acres of grapes, the tenants would owe at least half of the grapes to the landowner.
The landowner sent his slaves to collect the rent (remember here that slavery was a bit different in first century Palestine and was roughly closer to a servant). This would have been standard and routine.
However, the response of the tenants was not standard in any way. They react with violence. They beat one (most likely so he could carry back the message), killed another in cold blood, and felt such fury that they stoned another to death.
*For a commentary on stoning, see brief description and explanation during the sermon "Striking a Rock" on Zoom.
The first slave gets back to the landowner, and instead of contacting the authorities, the landowner sent more slaves, thinking perhaps there must have been a mistake or that his persistence will pay off. Also, there is the fact that if there are more slaves who might be able to hold their own with increased number.
It does not, however, pay off and everything goes the wrong way.
At this point, the landowner will be trying to figure out his options. Clearly sending an emissary to collect the rent went badly, sending men in greater force and number also didn’t help … so he thinks he’ll send someone more important, someone that the tenants must respect. He will send his son.
Jesus as Son
For seasoned Bible readers who know the story of Jesus and his crucifixion, everything should start slamming into place. What Jesus is trying to tell his followers (including us) should become apparent if not obvious – especially when the son of the landowner is likewise killed. However, we need to take a step back and remember that the disciples (and the chief priests) do not have the gift of foresight. Jesus is still alive, he hasn’t yet been crucified or even arrested.
Few listen when there are whispers he may be the Son of God, and if they do listen, they think he is being blasphemous (a high crime at this time and place in history).
We, two thousand years later, feel our stomachs deaden at this point of the parable, but no one else listening would feel the same horror. They would see escalation and sadness and would be offended by the disrespect, but they do not see a prefiguration of the unjust murder of God the Son.
Returning to the Parable
If we switch back to the actual parable, we see that it abruptly ends. We don’t know what happens. Instead, Jesus asks the people what would happen if the landowner comes.
My first thought is always, “they’re going to kill him, too.” If the tenants killed the slaves, and more slaves, and the son, then surely the landowner will not be able to hold his own.
However, I am a woman born in the late 20th century in Connecticut. I don’t live in that culture. I don’t know the innuendoes, the unspoken traditions.
My first reaction is based off of a time and culture that didn’t exists two thousand years ago. I need to think as the followers of Christ would have thought.
Instead of my incorrect gut reaction, the Gospel gives us the answer of the people: the owner will come, the landowner will kill the tenants (remember “the eye for an eye” mentality that was prevalent at this time), and then he will lease the vineyard to someone else.
We don’t know how this would happen exactly but we may be able to extrapolate.
The first (and more likely) scenario is that the landowner would have an entourage of some sort that would be able to protect him and kill the tenants with sheer physical strength. If we think to modern times, important figures of our society (whether high level politicians or celebrities) go everywhere with bodyguards and “friends”. We are aware of the concept. There was an entire HBO series about the concept of the “entourage”, which has now invaded our popular consciousness.
The second scenario is that the owner would have moral right on his side and, wielding the moral high ground, would kill the tenants and avenge the death of his various slaves and -more importantly- his son. While I would imagine there would be an element of this in the response, I think the first scenario (at least if we take the parable at face value) is more accurate — but the vineyard owner certainly has moral righteousness on his side.
And so ends the parable, but not the lesson.
What Jesus is Actually Saying
We – as modern readers – quite rightly identify the landowner’s son as Jesus Christ himself, at least by the time to when we get to that part of the parable.
So, from there we need to back up.
First Point – if Jesus is the son of the landowner then the landowner must be God the Father as God the Father is the father of God the Son.
Second Point – before the landowner sent his son to deal with the situation, he sent many slaves (or servants). The true servants of God (who have been abused throughout history) are the prophets. We know from the Bible that they were often shunned, humiliated, ignored, and sometimes killed. The most recent example would be Jesus’s own cousin, John the Baptist, whose head was presented on a silver platter during a royal meal.
Third Point – The landowner took (barren) land, created life, created a fence to protect it, put in a watch tower and then left, leaving it to others. This is a bleak picture once we parse it out, but if you take a moment to think, God created the world from the void, created life (including humans), put life in a garden and then (after the Fall) left the world to its own devices. But more importantly, he created apart from the earth the Kingdom of Heaven, which his children will one day inhabit. The story of the vineyard is therefore the of how not to act when presented with such an important gift.
Fourth Point – God initially offered the covenant to the Children of Israel, or (rather) the descendants of Abraham. But what have they done? Yes, they look after the vineyard, but they refuse to pay the landowner (this could be praying to him, offering him sacrifices, offering him true love and devotion). And – remember – they kill the slaves (or the prophets) and the son (Jesus Christ). The tenants are the People of Israel or, more specifically, their leaders: the chief priests and Pharisees.
Fifth Point – After hearing this parable, the chief priests and Pharisees see the parallel and they are far from happy.
Sixth Point – Jesus is then very explicitly when he states “Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Read into this: God’s love and promise and patronage are going to be taken away from men like the Pharisees and given to a new brand of followers … which is the Church of Jesus Christ.
Reaction of the Chief Priests and Pharisees
Obviously, the chief priests and the Pharisees are not happy. They know Jesus is talking about them and they find it insulting (as they should – Jesus is insulting them).
Here we see the future begin to unravel — or God’s plan begin to take form. The chief priests become angered, arrest Jesus, arrange for a state execution, and yet they lose it all. The vineyard is still taken from them. The promise of God’s love – the promise of the Kingdom of God – is handed into the hands of the followers of the fledgeling movement that would become Christianity.
What We Should Take From This
Well, the parable is a piece of historical storytelling. We see the story of God’s history with humankind played out in a story, and we are told (in metaphor) of Jesus’s own physical death before it happens.
But what we should truly take from this is the promise that Jesus implies. The Kingdom of God had been promised to those who were unworthy, and so it will be given to others when there is a reckoning.
The reckoning would be Apocalypse, but that’s another mini sermon for another day.
We, however, are the others who will receive the vineyard after the original tenants went on an immoral killing spree.
We are the new tenants of the vineyard, the kingdom, or (more specifically) the Kingdom of God.
We may not have been the original “children of God’ in the way the Sons of Abraham were, we did not receive the Old Covenant. However, we are children of the Lord now, not tied by blood or nationality. We are the children of his heart, children of his choice. We are God’s children by our choice.
It’s a powerful connection wrapped within a powerful promise.
The Kingdom of Heaven is ours for the taking — we simply must not dishonor God the Father while we wait for it.