What is it about vineyards and the Bible? They are all over the place. People plant them, steal them, neglect them, rescue them – all sorts of different efforts are made to keep them and avoid the ultimate disappointment of losing one. Israel is compared to a carefully planted vineyard, and depending on its behaviour, those vines are successful or given over to briars and wild animals. Jesus uses several vineyard examples for the Kingdom of Heaven, and goes so far as to say that God the Father is the vinedresser and he is the true vine. So why?
If you think about it, it is obvious. They didn’t have tea, and they hadn’t discovered coffee, whisky wouldn’t arrive for many centuries and lemonade was a glint in no one’s eye. Wine was the drink that was safe, that could be kept from month to month, year to year, and supplemented the local water supply all year round. The wine they made was thin, low in alcohol, bitter – Hannibal and his men used it to crack heated rocks as they crossed the Alps with their elephants – one up from vinegar sometimes, but essential. The village vineyard was necessary for the maintenance of life in the area. If the vineyard failed, the coming year would be very difficult indeed.
But the image of the vineyard is stronger than that. Vines are temperamental things. They love nothing better than growing tendrils for miles, twisting up together over a long stretch, putting out big leaves and generally creating chaos. Vines take a lot of work. Through the wonders of Radio 4, I can reliably inform you that a vineyard of 1500 vines takes three months to prune, which they do between December and April, so that the vines can start growing again once the spring warmth returns. And once growing again, tendrils have to be cut back, leaves which could obstruct sunlight from bunches of grapes have to be removed, and new shoots vigorously discouraged. The person who looks after a vineyard is very busy indeed, and necessarily a micro- manager.
All the stories of vineyards in the Bible use this daily care as an image of the loving care of Almighty God for his people, one who is interested in the smallest details of their lives as well as the big picture. Which is why the disappointment of the owner of the vineyard can be so great, when the grapes go wild, or the harvest is not handed over. All that has been invested in the crop is to no avail, all that love and effort gone to waste.
But there is something else going on in the story that Jesus tells about the vineyard. Firstly, the landowner is an absent landlord, a reflection of a much-resented trend in Israel at the time of Jesus. Rich people were buying up land and living off the profits, in Rome, in Athens or in Alexandria. The idea of the village vineyard was threatened by these practices, and the future of some villages was in doubt. Now that does not give the tenants who have worked the vineyard all year the right to abuse the landowners slaves, and certainly no reason to kill the son and then claim the inheritance on the demise of the landowner. But it does talk of distance, of a divergence of priorities between the landowner and his tenants.
So look again at Jesus’s audience: chief priests and the elders of the people. Look again at the chapter number: 21 – this is going on just after the first Palm Sunday, in the Temple courtyard, in the middle of Jerusalem. This is Jesus setting a challenge to the religious and political leaders of his country – “dare to arrest me, dare to put me on trial” he is saying, as he starts his parable with the exact same words as Isaiah 5. The chief priests knew exactly what he was up to – in Isaiah, one crop of wild grapes is sufficient for the destruction of the vineyard, but in Jesus’s parable, there is a string of slaves sent to the vineyard to bring back its harvest – the tenants of the vineyard have had time and opportunity to give their due payment to the owner, but have refused each time, and now murder is on their minds.
Jesus has the chief priests exactly where he wants them – reacting strongly to a parable that is as much about themselves as it is about the rest of Israel – and so, in the Temple precincts, he talks about a new temple, a new building, with him as its head and strength, the one on whom the new building will depend for its stability and endurance. And this is too much for the chief priests, but that Palm Sunday crowd still surrounds the Messiah, and they are not letting any religious leaders get anywhere near their hero.
But what about us? We have not rejected the overtures of the landowner. We have come to worship, we are here, offering the best of ourselves in our praise and adoration, seeking God’s help through prayer, desirous of meeting him once again in bread and wine. How do we fit into this parable? In many ways, we don’t. It is not about us, rather, it is for those who would obstruct the ways of God and keep to themselves the power and the access to the generosity and fullness of God. It is up to us to ensure that that never happens – welcome, openness, generosity, sharing – they all prevent any desire to cling on to what we have in Christ, as what we have is too precious to do that.
The parable does speak to us about the endless love of God, his grace in waiting and waiting for us to produce the fruit of care, support and encouragement that he expects from us. The parable suggests an expectation of harvest from us, his people, an expectation that should not be disappointed.
So what do we take away this morning? We could leave the parable and concentrate on what Paul has to say to the Philippians, which is both wonderful and mind blowing. Or we could look afresh at what Jesus has to say about the new temple that he is building, for we are a part of that, built on the foundation of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. How do we fit in to this structure? Are we pulling our weight? This building, this new temple, is dynamic, ever-changing and growing as God’s love transforms us day by day. There is a lot to do here, and it will happen if we pull together in prayer, in imagination and in a full deployment of our God-given skills.
May God give us grace to bring forth good fruit, and to be active labourers in his vineyard, to his praise and glory.