Jesus and the disciples had spent the night in Bethany, and they had returned to Jerusalem and entered into the temple. The Chief Priests had just about recovered from the shock of Jesus cleansing the temple by casting out the merchants and money-changers, and they were now challenging his authority to do everything that he was doing – all the preaching, teaching, healing & miracles. From here on there would be confrontation between Jesus and many people who were trying to discredit him, and the conflict between Jesus & the Jewish leaders was escalating to the point that there would be no turning back, & it would eventually lead to His crucifixion.
In todays gospel reading it was the Chief Priests and Elders who were trying to discredit Jesus by suggesting that he was a usurper of Judaism. a blasphemer who was claiming to have authority directly from God. And Jesus responded by telling a parable in which a landlord set aside some of his land and planted a vineyard. The parable that he told was certainly not for the faint hearted. Jesus certainly had a way of confronting and challenging comfort zones, and this account of the wicked tenants is the parable where, finally, the chief priests and Elders of the temple realised that Jesus was pointing his finger at them. But before we settle ourselves down in comfort, safely on the side of Jesus, waiting for the wrath of God to fall upon the priests & elders of the temple let us be absolutely clear that this story is not for onlookers. This is not about us and them – there is only US in this parable. All the people to whom Christ came with the offer of a new life in the Kingdom of God. In this Gospel we are confronted with all our contradictions, & our tendency to try and exclude those who get in the way, those who rock the boat, or disturb what may be for us a comfortable peaceful way of life. Jesus uses this parable to shine a spotlight on the behaviour of humankind to remind us of the God of surprises, who sent his Son to turn the world upside-down.
This was a dangerous time for Jesus, he was right in the firing line as he stood in the temple that day confronting the religious leaders, & telling them that dishonest tax collectors who humbly turn to God in faith would be welcomed into God’s Kingdom ahead of them. This really was hard hitting stuff, Jesus had effectively told them that they had thrown away the key to the Kingdom, whilst the outsiders, those on the margins, had found the key. When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a man who dined with the wrong sort of people. A man who refused to be entrapped by awkward and cleverly composed questions. A man who was prepared to abandon the laws and traditions of his day, someone who chose to put love and compassion above all else. Imagine how provocative that must have been – little wonder then that they threw him out of the temple and began to plot his death.
The landowner in the parable had planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press and built a watchtower. He then leased it out and moved to another country. That vineyard was well prepared, ready to flourish with great potential to produce wonderful fruit and an abundant supply of wine for rejoicing! The fence, which was presumably to keep the fruit secure, was turned into an exclusion zone by the tenants. Even if there weren’t any visible “keep out” signs, those inside the vineyard were quite clearly busy protecting their own interests, & they were happy to resort to aggression and violence to keep things as they were. Instead of being a place of fertility and productivity that vineyard had become a place of exclusion. If the Kingdom of God bears fruit as shown through the life of Jesus, then all the hallmarks of his ministry and his radical love should be seen in our own actions and participation in the life of the Kingdom as we seek to follow Christ’s example.
Think of all the wonderful acts of hope and love, healing and inclusion that Jesus revealed in his life and ministry – The hospitality and welcome to the stranger and the outcast, the generosity to the poor, the compassion towards the vulnerable, healing and reconciliation, passion for justice, and ultimately total self-surrender to the rule of love. And I wonder in what ways we exclude ourselves from this Kingdom by turning our back & walking in the opposite direction, rejecting the teachings of Christ and putting up barriers to keep God’s love out ?
Essentially it really is just about about those seemingly small tendencies like the mistrust of strangers, apathy towards the plight of the needy, complacency about the vulnerable, a general lack of fruitfulness and joy that prevents the Kingdom from flourishing. But there is good news to be found in the story of the wicked tenants in the way that God persistently keeps on coming back over and over again, showering us with love and forgiveness, longing for us to embrace the Kingdom of God, willing us to produce even one little shoot of growth.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his Son…”
He came for us all – the loved and the unloved, the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong. And especially he came to the last, the least and the lost. The parable in this morning’s gospel invite us to come before the one unto whom “all hearts are open all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.” Jesus, rejected by that magnificent temple in Jerusalem, became the cornerstone of a new temple on which we build our lives. Christ with us and in us, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. transforming our ordinary lives and sending us out to do extraordinary things…to bear fruit for the Kingdom. We have all been given a vineyard, our daily decisions & choices, our hopes, dreams & concerns are the vineyards in which we are to reveal the presence and life of God to produce the fruits of the Kingdom. Our work in those vineyards & the fruit produced there come together to show whether or not we share in God’s Kingdom. This morning as we ponder our tendency to exclude ourselves from the Kingdom by our failure to recognise the possibility of truth being revealed in the unexpected, we should ask ourselves:-
How is your vineyard growing, is there fruit, is there life, are you sharing in God’s Kingdom or have you erected a fence around it, is God happy with your vineyard ?