By the Rev. Martin Yost
The image of a vineyard used by Jesus in telling the parable in today’s gospel would certainly have been familiar to his hearers. They would know the layout, the hedges, the towers, the arrangement with the husbandmen, in ways that we might not in our own experience That’s an important element in reading or hearing Jesus’ parables, having a sense of just how immediate, how down to earth they were to the people who heard them, how closely related the parables were to their daily lives. But there is something else those who heard Jesus’ telling the parable could not fail to catch. It echoes the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah. There Isaiah speaks of the beloved and his vineyard, who are identified with the Lord and Israel. So in addition to the mere practical elements of a vineyard in first century Palestine, there is this rich imagery, this powerful association with Israel’s history and their sense of themselves as a people.
A vineyard is unlike other agricultural efforts. It is not a matter simply of planting a crop to be harvested a few months later. The vineyard must be carefully prepared and well cared for. It is a long-term investment, a labor that will not yield its grapes, and ultimately its wine, for several years. The wine is not essential to human survival, but has been from ancient times essential to human society. Planting a vineyard is, in some sense, about relationship. In the image of Israel as a vineyard, God is shown to be cultivating a people to be his own.
The outcome, however, is one of bitter disappointment. In Isaiah it is the the harvest, the grapes themselves that prove disappointing. As Jesus tells the parable, the focus is shifted to the husbandmen, the tenant farmers who were tasked with caring for the vineyard. The parable symbolizes the fact that the people of Israel were not faithful to the covenant the Lord made with them. In the Gospel parable, Israel remains God’s people, and God is the landlord. God’s covenant is an offer of salvation, and again and again he sends prophets to recall his people to the covenant. Finally, like the owner in the parable, God sends his son. When the son is rejected, the vineyard is given to others. Just so, though his Church, God invites all to be his people.
When we hear the parable of the vineyard, we likely make the tenants the focus of our judgement. How could they be so ungrateful? How they be so selfish, unjust, and, eventually, murderous? We interpret the parable (rightly) as reflecting the refusal of Jewish leaders at the time to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed this is precisely how the chief priests and the Pharisees understood it. They perceived that Jesus had told the parable against them.
But it is rather too easy to pass judgement on others, especially those in the past. We need to see where we might fit in. What does the parable mean for us? We might see the vineyard as something now entrusted to our care. That raises the question of our responsibility. What return do we owe the owner of the vineyard? Indeed why should we care at all?
The image of the vineyard suggests more than God just setting some rules and expecting us to obey. As I said, a vineyard is a place carefully prepared, requiring ongoing cultivation and patience before there is a yield. A vineyard suggests relationship.
A verse from the psalms asks,
What is man that thou art mindful of him? *
And the son of man that thou visitest him?
Which is echoed by George Herbert in this charming stanza from his poem Mattens.
My God, what is a heart?
That thou should’st it so eye, and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?
Whether conscious of it or not, we are the objects of special care, of God’s loving providence. The creator of heaven and earth eyes and woos each human heart. We have been made for relationship with him. A vineyard has been prepared for us. Too often we fail to show our gratitude, to yield the fruit as we ought.
What is it that keeps us from responding as we should? One thing no doubt everyone struggles with is self-centeredness. The more we are wrapped up in ourselves, the more isolated we become from God and one another, and the less likely we are to see God in our own life and that of our neighbor. It’s not that we positively want to exclude God. But when Jesus comes to us, he finds there is no room. If we don’t allow room for God, how can we possibly respond to his invitation to a relationship?
Self-centeredness is tied up with sin. Sin can be not so much willful wrongdoing as a failure to respond to God’s invitation. Sin separates us from God. Traditionally, we speak of sin as an offense against God. Strictly speaking, however, God is beyond being offended or hurt in the ordinary sense of those terms. It seems more accurate to see sin as an obstacle which makes it impossible for Jesus to enter into our lives, and for us to encounter God in a life-giving way. A soul thus hardened becomes impervious to God’s grace.
There is another aspect to this failure to respond to God’s invitation, which is more subtle and more serious. It is indifference, a lack of care or concern about whether we know God or not. It consists in being oblivious to the very possibility of encountering God.
Of the many horrible aspects of the murders this past week in Las Vegas, one thing caught my attention as perhaps the most chilling. Speaking to reporters, the killer’s brother said, “He had no religious affiliation, no political affiliation, nothing.” And in another interview, he again said of his brother, “No affiliation, no religion, no politics. He never cared about any of that stuff. He was a guy who had money. He went on cruises and gambled.”
For some this will simply reinforce how inexplicable the man’s actions were. To me it underlines how much we are meant to be in relationship—communion—with God and one another. And how deeply inhuman life is otherwise. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Dostoevsky’s characters says, “Without God, everything is permitted.” It is a sickness not only of one soul, but of a society in which such a soul is formed. But it doesn’t have to be this way and indeed it is not so everywhere. The Church, of course, invites us to a relationship with God and one another. And even associations of merely human origin can foster genuine community, community that enables people to live and relate in ways that are authentically human; this itself can begin to orient the individual person towards God.
The north porch of the Cathedral at Chartres has a series of stone carvings depicting Creation. One of the carvings for the sixth day shows the creation of Adam. Half emerged from the dust of the earth, Adam is not yet fully formed. His head rests on Christ’s lap. Christ’s hands gently hold Adam’s head, drawing him forth as if in childbirth. It conveys a sense of having God’s entire attention, brought into being, into wholeness, by an act of love. It speaks of the place of God in each and every human life—even if we fail to realize how inextricably wed our lives are to one another and to the God who made us all. There is strength and gentleness, serene joy and determination, dependence and independence, as God makes man in his image and likeness, and entrusts him with the dignity of freedom. From the moment of creation, God invites each one of us into a relationship, saying, You are my creature, and also my image and counterpart. Share in the work of the vineyard I have prepared, and yield its fruit.