Whose Vineyard Is It

"The scribes and Pharisees perceived that he had told this parable against them." No dummies they. So they sought to lay hands on him, that is, to arrest him. The power and effect of Jesus is most often seen in confrontations, with Pharisees and scribes, with the sick and demon possessed and with the demons. It is seen in how people react to him, whether they accept or reject, seek to follow or kill, Jesus. It is in this confrontation that they, and of course we too, are judged.

But let's look at just what the scribes and Pharisees hear told against them. Jesus' parable is rooted in the relations between tenants and absentee landlords. The Scribes and Pharisees were such absentee landlords. They were many of them rich men who lived in Jerusalem and in villas by the sea, and whose wealth came from land worked by tenant farmers. So Jesus' hearers know whereof he speaks. In this parable there was a tenant revolt, and the tenants decided to keep the produce for themselves. When the landlord finally sent his own son, they decided that the landlord must be dead, so they killed the son. In their legal system, if there was no more legitimate heir, those in actual possession of the land could legally claim it. That's what these guy were planning to do.

But there is another dimension here, which Jesus uses to put a curious twist on the story. In Isaiah the figure of a vinyard is used to describe Israel. The Lord plants a vinyard and cares for it, but it produces wild grapes. The vinyard, the prophet says, is Israel, and from it the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed, righteousness but behold a cry. In his story, Jesus is putting the leaders of Israel in the place of these rebellious tenants. It is they who have seized control of the Lord's vinyard for their own use and profit. It is they who are doing violence and provoking the oppressed to cry out to the Lord as in their slavery in Egypt. This is what the scribes and Pharisees hear told against them. It is no wonder they want to do away with Jesus.

In their encounter with Jesus, their reaction is to have him done away with, rather then to repent and follow him. They would rather kill Jesus and squelch the accusations, than face them and do justice to their fellows. In their encounter with Jesus, they meet the judgement, and are judged by the choice they make.

So, I fear, are we. Jesus confronts us with choice after choice, when we encounter him in reflection and prayer, in our reading of Scripture, and in encountering Jesus in other people.

If we are honest with ourselves, isn't it true that at many times and in many ways, we are confronted with our own attempts to possess the Lord's vinyard, the world God created, in our own name and for our own purposes. We find ourselves wanting to have the world our own way and trying to force it to be that way. Don't we see this too in our desire to keep things the way they "always" were. So we automatically reject the new, new ideas, new things, new people. Even in our established and cherished relationships, we are resistant to change or growth. Don't we find a tendency to reject, or at least be wary of, people who come to us with love or affection, for fear we may have to change. Less is demanded of us and our control is greater, if we can just keep things the same. And we refuse to hear the voices that would confront us, that would convict us of falling short of what God wants for us, what God created us for. In the long run, if we fall deeply prey to these moves, we run the danger of rejecting God entirely, of putting god to death, or at least entirely out of our lives, so that we can hang onto control of the vinyard.

So we find ourselves judged by our reactions, by our rejecting what turns out to be Jesus in the ordinary days and ways of our lives.

What do we need to know that will help us turn around? Our other two lessons give us some hints. From Isaiah we learn hope. The prophet speaks here to a people who have been conquered and resettled in a land far from home. He proclaims a new Exodus and the formation of a new people of God. In so doing he bids the people not to remember former things, to forget the discouraging past, and behold a new thing which God is doing. It is this new thing we meet when we meet Jesus, when we hear his invitation to us, and hope perceives in all the new things springing forth at us possibilities as well as threats. And hope acted on puts the past behind us. Then, we can see in our deserts rivers, and in our wilderness water.

From Paul, we can learn that move of acting on our hope. We learn trust and faith. Paul says he counts everything loss except Jesus Christ. He has counted everything else as loss so that he may have the righteousness, the innocence, that comes through Jesus Christ. He will have no righteousness of his own, no vineyard of his own, but only Christ's. This faith is just the trust that Jesus has really acted to save and justify us, and that we can confidently act on this salvation, that we can trust it and live it out, that we will be okay, regardless of our past of sin and failure, regardless of our disbelief in our own ability to fulfill it. So like Paul, forgetting what lies behind, we can stretch, or strain, forward, forward to what lies ahead, our future, the new thing God intends for us.

Truly, as Jesus says, "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." This trust in Jesus is not the way the world works, it is not the wisdom of our culture or our workplace. But it offers our only real hope. And it is rejected. Over the next weeks here, we will see it rejected. But we will also see it triumph over that rejection. We will see the triumph of impossible hope, the only hope that can ever truly empower us.