The Parable of the Vineyard: Being “Tenants” Today

Matthew 21:33-46

I don’t know much of vineyards except for the three rows of concord grapes which grew in straight lines, supported by fence posts and wire, behind the garage where I grew up.

I am certain that when my folks bought that house to accommodate a growing family that the grapevines were just an interesting add-on for then they were simply looking for a home with space aplenty both inside and out. And this one had it: space enough to grow children and abundant space for growing a garden and more than enough space to run and play. But there were those grapevines, too, and knowing my dad, he probably eyed them with interest for he was always an ‘interested’ kind of person.

So it is that I remember lying between those vines on a summer’s day for even abundant space is sometimes not enough for an adolescent when she just wants to be alone. And I remember taking clippers and bushel basket and helping harvest those grapes in the fall, occasionally sneaking a taste, but remembering as I did so to do so gingerly, else the sour would overwhelm the sweet. And I remember the sweet, sweet smell of purple grapes and sugar boiling on the kitchen stove and being poured into enough jars to spread through a winter’s worth of morning toast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And I remember the fruit flies taking up residence in our basement each year as autumn turned to winter and my dad’s efforts at making wine gave them sustenance. And I remember this. I remember my dad coming inside in the morning each year on January 1st. It was his annual ritual to prune those vines on New Year’s Day for this was, he said, the best time to do it. More than that, no doubt when everything had gone dormant in our part of the world, this was connection for him still to the earth and all that is good in it.

And so I think of that small ‘vineyard’ as I hear the story Jesus tells us now, and these things I know. Those three rows of grape vines in our back yard had been planted generations before for they were old and gnarly by then. No doubt, they were planted by the farm family who had lived in our house before us and they were tended with care for the fruit they would produce. So it was through no doing of our own and not even as a result of our necessarily wanting them, we simply inherited them and my dad just ‘picked up the torch’ so to speak and cared for them for the rest of his life.  In the same way, the vineyard planted in today’s parable was one that was planted with care and intention. And I expect it was planted long before the current tenants leased it — long before they knew they could be their means to provide for life itself — for vines take time to produce.

And so this has me thinking now of all the gifts we ‘inherit’ through no doing of our own or even before we knew we wanted or needed them. I think of this vast beautiful world and how God hands it to us to sustain our very lives and how we are given it to tend. Like my dad in the ‘vineyard’ on New Year’s Day and how he spent that time remembering the gift of being connected to the gifts of the earth. Like those tenants who somehow forgot all this and decided that the vineyard was theirs and theirs alone.

So I do imagine that Jesus uses the image of a vineyard now for the same reason the prophets did before him:

  • Because they are powerful examples of intentional gift passed on.
  • Because vineyards do not happen over night, but are the results of many, many years of cultivation and care. In this case, by God’s Own Hand.
  • And because they are symbols of abundance where God’s gift and our human hands and hearts join together to produce delicious things which sustain and enhance our lives.

Oh, we hear the parable Jesus offers now and we shake our heads, unable to imagine how the tenants forgot all of this and how their hearts could have become so callous or so greedy that they would kill first the messengers and then the son himself. And yet we also know that Jesus’ words today are prophecy. That those who heard Jesus speak these words the first time would, in a matter of days, find themselves behaving just as those tenants did. For they, too, had somehow forgotten the gift and privilege of it all.

And finally, almost as an afterthought,  I think of this. The grapes we harvested so long ago were not cultivated to be ‘table grapes.’ Oh, if eaten with care (meaning you did not want to chew them) you could get a hint of sweetness, but mostly we did not just eat them. They were meant for other kinds of sweet celebrations: the sort that got spread on toast or lifted high in another kind of toast.

I don’t know what kind of grapes the vineyard Jesus speaks of now produced. We do hear that there was a wine press in the vineyard so we are led to believe that wine was their intended destiny. The sort of wine that made its way to wedding feasts, yes, but also to every day tables in a time and place where water was a luxury or at least only came to be enjoyed as the result of hard work, and clean water perhaps could not be relied on. And yes, to Passover Meals where, in one instance we know so well, the wine came to mean so much more.

  • And so what for us today? Is this just an ancient story simply meant to foreshadow what would happen next in Matthew’s drama or is it meant to still be heard by us today with fresh ears and open hearts? Are we among those who live as though all of this is a gift passed on to us from God’s own hand and tended by the hands who have gone before us?
  • Or are our hearts also callous? Are we willing to ‘kill’ those sent to us to remind us that all of this is God’s to start with and you and I are part of something larger and more abundant than even we were looking for when first we set our hands and hearts to work in this ‘vineyard’ we have inherited?
  • The parable of the ‘vineyard’ rang familiar with those who first heard Jesus tell it for vineyards were all around them and it works in my imagination for I grew up between grapevines — small as they were. No doubt, it doesn’t work for everyone. What works in your neighborhood? How can you help open the imaginations of those for whom this image is entirely unfamiliar in any real way? What does it mean to ‘be tenants in the vineyard’ where you live and serve?

One comment

  1. Reminds me of the comment, ‘You didn’t build this.’ Stewardship and ownership are so different. I also grew up with Concord grapes – you could get sweet from the skin and the layer just beneath, but the center with the seeds – wow! They disappeared sometime between my leaving for college and visiting later.

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