Talk about your basic horrible decisions. What were the vineyard tenants thinking? When the owner of vineyard sends his servants to collect what is rightfully his, the tenants beat one, kill another and stone the third. When the next set of servants arrive, they continue with the basic trajectory of decisions that they somehow think will turn out well. When the landowner’s son arrives, they murder him. How is it they think this is going to work out for them? As I said, talk about your basic horrible decisions.Jesus is speaking to the chief priest, elders and scribes about horrible decisions they are making as they are not reflective about what folks like the prophet Isaiah have warned them about. Their predecessors corrupted true worship, thought they were the owners of the vineyard and became obsessed with their position, privilege and powers – forgetting they were just the current stewards of the covenant between God and the people. They killed the messengers the prophets who warned them and the covenant people ended up exiled in Babylon, Jerusalem destroyed. Talk about your basic horrible decisions.
Jesus is telling them – this is déjà vu all over again. And now that the Son of God has come as messenger, you have a choice – make some great decisions that honor the covenant with God – or make some really horrible decisions. All prophets and all of the Hebrew scriptures point to the coming of the Messiah – and yet, as we know, they are going to fulfill the parable and kill the Son.
Is it just a single really horrible decision – or is just the slow accumulation of a series of sequential poor decisions that just makes the final decision horrible? When the people left the exile of Babylon, they knew they were totally dependent on God and their work was to make that goodness known to the world.
Sometime in the ensuring passing of time, the leaders began to think they had built the new Jerusalem, they had worked hard and deserved favor and privilege, they were deserving, they were owed – they, for all practical purposes, were the owners. A series of poor decisions about who they were and what they were called to do. Along the way, the tenants/leaders forgot their vocation – their standing in relationship to both the land and the landowner. To put it bluntly, they forgot that they own nothing — nothing at all. Everything belongs to the landowner. Theirs is not a vocation of ownership; it is a vocation of caring, tending, safeguarding, cultivating, and protecting — on behalf of another. They are there so that the covenant harvest is plentiful for the people of Israel and for the whole world.
It is easy to see this as a lesson of history, but when did Jesus use a parable as a history lesson? Parables are spoke in each age, to each listener, as a question. As I often point out, the Bible is not a book of answers, but rather a book of questions. So…what question does this parable ask of you, me, each one of us? What is our role in the vineyard?
Think of it this way: the vineyard owner had to find the right piece of property, not just any old plot of land will do. Once he owned the land, he invested about $20,000 per acre per year for 3-5 years before he had his first harvest. And then he asks us to protect, nourish and grow the investment. And we don’t just get to sit back and watch. A single vine plant will grow 60-100 feet of new growth each year from one trunk. That is in addition to the already producing growth which is good for about 3-5 years. Left untended you will get an amazing, bountiful harvest of tons of grapes able to produce a seriously lousy wine. The vineyard takes tending, chopping off and burning the dead wood, trimming new and old growth to produce – not just any harvest – but one of a harvest of superlative quality. And the harvest is for the greater glory of the landowner. It is his name on the labels. We are just stewards. We’ve lots of work, but it is what we are given to do.
What is our to do? Maybe that is the question we are each called to encounter. Each of us is a beloved daughter or son of God who has been gifted with talents and invited to labor in the vineyard. And don’t assume the vineyard is only church and parish ministries. There is the ministry of parent, police, priest, paralegal, paramedic, pharmacist, physical therapist, president, process engineer, program manager, physician, programmer, plumber, psychiatrist, psychologist, physician assistant, porter, potter, painter, photographers, pastry chef, pathologist, pianist, pipe fitter….and I think you get the picture – and that is only one letter of the alphabet.
We do not own the gifts we are given – they are “loaned” to us in order than the harvest grow in the vineyard. Because each one of us in our place, with our gifts, are called to produce good fruits at the proper time. And here’s the thing: you are never outside of the vineyard. At home, at work, at play, at church – you are in the vineyard. So how are we doing? Have we – at the proper time – produced fruit. And do I remember that what I do, I do for the greater glory of God? Good questions to ask and re-ask.
How have I done in producing fruit at the proper time? If I am honest it is a mixed record. I could have been a better son, friend, naval officer, business person, confidant, missionary, Franciscan, priest and pastor. At the end of one season each steward of the vineyard gets to pause, look back and ask what St. Paul asks in the second reading.
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things…keep on doing what you have learned.
The thing about horrible decisions…it is rarely one instance of time…. It is often the slow accumulation of small, but poor decisions. Decision we make because we think we are owners. Decisions because we think the vineyard is only a church thing. Decisions because we don’t take the time to pause and reflect.
Take the time, ask the questions, and accumulate a whole series of great little decisions.