Our text today is about some ‘wicked renters.’ To our younger generation, the word ‘wicked’ has had a different connotation than it had only a few years ago. Say, for instance, we’re at Valley Fair and we’ve just gotten off the ‘steel venom’ ride—which I like, but it scares the bejeebers out of me. Our youth would say, “That was a wicked ride!” What they mean by that is that it was a fantastic, hair-raising experience. Some of us might say it was ‘totally cool,’ or it was ‘extremely exciting,’ maybe even ‘incredible,’ but probably not ‘wicked.’ The word ‘wicked’ could also be used to describe a ‘really hot’ car, or a great play in a game.
What I’m referring to by calling the renters of the vineyard ‘wicked’ in our Gospel lesson is the other, more standard, connotation of the word. These renters were awful, horrible, even evil renters. They were a landlord’s worst nightmare.
Think about it. A man had this vineyard, which was a sign of wealth and prosperity in Bible times. He was an absentee landlord; by that I mean he owned the land and the crop, but didn’t tend it himself. He lived somewhere else and hired servants to care for the plants, harvest the crop of grapes, and press the grapes into juice to make wine. In return, the tenants, or renters, split the harvested crop with the landlord. The tenants had a lot of control over the success of the crop—the better care they took of the crop, the more they would earn at harvest time. This is a common farming practice even today.
It seems like a great arrangement, a win—win situation. The landlord earns a living off his land and vineyard he has invested in, while the renters have the freedom to do their work without being micro-managed by the absentee landlord. Our farmers do this today. They retire and rent out their land, so they have an income.
But there’s a huge problem that develops in Jesus’ parable. The landlord wasn’t getting paid by the renters. He sent his servants to collect his share of the crop and they were beaten, stoned, and one was even killed by the wicked renters. So the landlord then sent more servants to collect his share of the crop and they were treated in a similar fashion. After these two failed attempts, the landlord sent his son, figuring the renters would respect the son and pay up. But the renters became even more aggressive and killed the owner’s son figuring they would inherit the vineyard when the son was out of the picture. Those were some ‘wicked’—evil renters!
Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders who had asked Him about His authority. They were already mad at Jesus because of the parable of the 2 sons we read last Sunday. Now Jesus gets under their skin even more. He asked them what the landlord should do to the wicked renters. Caught-up in the story, they quickly answered that the renters should be put to a miserable death. They added that the vineyard would then be leased to other tenants who would play by the rules and respect the owner.
When the religious leaders realized Jesus was talking about them they were incensed! They began working on a way to kill Jesus, which, sadly, confirmed Jesus’ prophecy. Jesus was telling an allegory about God as the landlord, the religious leaders (not the Jewish people as a whole) were the wicked renters, the prophets were the slaves, and of course Jesus was the Son they drove out and killed.
So what does this parable have to say to us today? What can we take away from this story? This is not an easy parable even for us to hear. Where do we find the Good News in this parable? As those who have been given the Kingdom of God through the grace of Jesus, we are the ones—the servants—who are called on to produce the fruits of the Kingdom. We are entrusted with a great gift, and a great responsibility. This parable is about the judgment of God, and the reality is that we will one day be judged as well. How do we care for the ‘vineyard’ that has been entrusted to our care?
I believe this parable is about accountability. We are all accountable to God for our actions, our words, and the way we treat one another. Parents and children, wives and husbands, friends and neighbors, all are accountable to each other to treat one another with love and respect. We are God’s children in baptism; we are claimed as God’s children.
If you remember the Ten Commandments, three of them deal with our relationship toward God, and seven of them deal with our relationships with one another. Jesus said that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” God cares deeply about how we treat each other and how we show love for all people. As God’s children, how do we respond to God’s choosing us?
This past week was a difficult one for our country—at least it was for me. We are in the midst of the Covid crisis which does not seem to be letting up, and neither does the rhetoric in the election ads that are played over and over. The Debate last week was deeply unsettling for me and I suspect for most of you as well. As a country, as a group of citizens, as Christians—we must do better than this. This parable Jesus told is about accountability. It’s about how we treat other people. It’s about how God holds us accountable to one another and how we are to treat one another as Christians.
The imagery of the vine and the vineyard is so prevalent in the Bible. Our lessons from Isaiah and our Psalm both talk about our connection to one another as a vine-vineyard. In John 15, Jesus says that He is the vine and we are the branches. We are pruned and cared for by our Lord so that we might bear good fruit in the world as His disciples. Jesus says that as members of His Kingdom we are called to love one another and care for one another as He has given His life for us out of love for us.
Isaiah is prophesying about the destruction of Israel—beautiful Jerusalem especially—and the exile of God’s beloved people to wicked Babylon to be kept as slaves. In his talk about the vineyard, Isaiah writes that it will be destroyed. “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Each day we are presented with opportunities to love and care for others. We are challenged to expand our horizons of what it means to love as we encounter new experiences and meet up with new people. It’s both exciting and a daunting task to share that great gift of grace, but we are not alone in our efforts. The Holy Spirit is with us to challenge us, call us to repentance when we fail, and remind us of our Savior’s great love for us and all His children. Press on, Christians, toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus!