I was at Manchester Cathedral last Sunday for a talk by a Communications expert. He told us how society has moved to a much more visual way of sharing information. YouTube is the most frequently looked at website for instance and TikTok more popular than Facebook.
I’m not sure that so much has changed. The internet wasn’t available when the Bible was written – but, even then, the top communicators used visual language and story-telling to capture people’s imaginations and get a point across.
You might recall a parable in the OT told by the prophet Nathan to King David. David, a man with many wives, had his eyes on another – Bathsheba – already wife to Uriah (2 Samuel 12).
Nathan was smart and knew that he couldn’t just tell the King that he was in the wrong. So, he told a story of a rich man who had many flocks and herds and a poor man who had just one lamb which was like one of the family to him. Then a traveller came along. The rules of hospitality meant that the rich man should provide food and drink for the traveller – but, instead of taking from one of his own flocks, he took the poor man’s only lamb instead. King David was full of righteous anger and said the man deserved to die – until Nathan pointed out that the story was about David himself. David had condemned himself. Gotcha! Nathan had very effectively made his point.
We have just such a parable in our Gospel reading this morning. Actually, there are two parables. One to hammer home the point of the other in case the audience didn’t get it the first time. And the first is itself a twist on the parable from Isaiah 5 that we heard earlier.
On the face of it, Jesus was describing a common enough situation at the time. An absentee landlord made a legal agreement with some tenant farmers that they could work his vineyard and take the produce in return for the landowner having an agreed amount of the crop when the time came. In some parts of the world, I’m sure this is quite a normal set-up even now.
And it sounds like the landowner had well-provided for the tenants. There was a fence around the land and a watchtower and even the equipment ready installed to make the wine.
Jesus usually throws some exaggeration into his short stories to pique the interest of the listeners. And here it’s the extraordinary patience of the landowner in the face of the repeatedly aggressive behaviour of the tenants towards the succession of people, including his own son, that he sends in to resolve the problem and take the agreed share of the crop. In real life, you can quite imagine that after just the first incident the landowner would have sent in the equivalent of the bailiffs to deal with the tenants.
But Jesus is leading his audience down an alleyway where he’s going to ask them a question to which there can be only one answer, which they duly give. Like David, the chief priests and elders condemn themselves, though they don’t quite know it yet. They tell Jesus that the tenants must be dealt with in the harshest way and then lease the vineyard to someone more responsible.
Because there’s every chance that they were wealthy and even landowners themselves. They had immediately identified with the plight of the owner. That’s when Jesus metaphorically hits them with the stone that the builders rejected, which is taken from the Psalms (118).
And that’s when the penny drops that he was identifying himself as the son in the story – and the chief priests and elders were not the landowners at all but the tenants, tenants who would be replaced. Then too late they remember the parable in Isaiah where the vineyard represents Israel – and they realise that the succession of slaves represents the prophets who hadn’t been listened to and that the landowner is not them but God. That was their Nathan/David moment. Gotcha!
But I wonder if there were others listening, others who perhaps worked the land themselves. Maybe they heard the story differently.
It’s thought that between 80% and 90% of people made their living off the land at the time of Jesus. Many would have been tenant farmers or day labourers. Some would take out loans with the promise of paying it back from the forthcoming harvest in the hope that it was a good one. If then the harvest failed or was poor, then the landowners still expected their agreed amount of crop, and the farmer was left impoverished. And if they couldn’t meet their debt, then they had no choice but to sell themselves into slavery or debt servitude, working for nothing until they paid off what was owed.
On top of that, around Galilee there was a threefold taxation system: the tribute to Rome, taxes to Herod and tithes and offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Historians think that, as a result, as many as 60% of the population lived at or below subsistence level.
So, perhaps this other group of listeners would feel every sympathy for the tenants in the story and can understand the utter desperation that maybe led to the initial reaction to the first slaves that came along. And then when the expected armed response doesn’t arrive, they detect weakness in the owner, and they get more confident.
The owner could have returned violence for violence, but he did not. He just kept sending messengers pleading with the tenants to honour their agreement. And it might seem an implausible idea that tenants would gain the inheritance of the son if they killed him – but it seems that at the time there was the equivalent of squatters’ rights, where if you could maintain physical possession for 3 years then the ownership became yours.
Position of power
And what of the owner? The abusing of his servants was an insult to his person, and he was honour bound to deal with the matter. He had every right to ask the authorities to send in heavily armed men to bring the tenants to justice. He was in a position of power. So, what is he to do?
In the equivalent passage in Luke (20) the owner even says: ‘What shall I do?’. The answer that he comes to is that he will send his son – ‘my beloved son’ it says in Luke. ‘They will respect my son’, he adds. He sends him alone and unescorted. Given what’s happened already it’s seemingly an act of naivety or stupidity.
Shame and honour
But the author Kenneth Bailey, who writes from a Middle Eastern perspective, where shame and honour are a big deal, explains that the owner is acting out of unspeakable nobility. He profoundly hopes that the total vulnerability of his son will awaken some long-lost sense of honour amongst the tenants. His servants have been beaten, wounded and killed – yet he is prepared to take a risk with an even greater loss.
Bailey explains that Arabic versions of the Bible translate ‘they will respect my son’ as ‘they will feel shame in his presence’. The owner is banking on retaliation not being the only way. That vulnerability had the power to be life-renewing.
Bailey then illustrates this with an incident which happened in Jordan in the 1980’s. King Hussein was informed that 75 army officers were meeting in a nearby barracks, plotting a military overthrow. His security officers wanted to surround the barracks and arrest the plotters. After thinking a while, the King asked for a small helicopter to be made available.
The King got in alone with the pilot, told him where to go and said if you hear gunshots, leave me and get away. They landed on the flat roof of the barracks and the King walked down the stairs alone and into the meeting of the 75. He quietly said to them that if they went ahead with their plan then thousands of innocent people would be killed or wounded. The army will break apart and the country plunged into civil war. Here I am, he said. Kill me if you wish. That way, only one man will die. There was a stunned silence then every one of the officers came forward to kiss his hand and pledge allegiance. The King had made himself totally vulnerable.
Back in our story, Jesus is painting a picture about Israel and the prophets and his own coming and what will happen to him. In the story, the son is totally vulnerable and the tenants kill him. Jesus gets killed too, but he doesn’t stay dead.
The tenants had forgotten that they were tenants and had started to believe they were the owners. That was never the plan. The vineyard was not for sale. They were guests with access to much more than they could ever have had in their own right. They were stewards. All the owner asked was that they cared for it and gave him a portion of what they produced. Not because he needed it – because he’d give it right back to those that do.
No, he asked them to give because they needed reminding that they were guests, guests who should return the favour by giving something of themselves away to others.
Justice and righteousness
We are God’s guests too. A week after your Harvest Festival this is a further reminder that we are welcome to the earth as long as we remember whose it is and how it should be used, loving it as our own. We tend the earth on God’s behalf, representing his interests. The fruits are not for our exclusive use and are meant to be shared. We are not the owners and were never meant to be. But we should respect the owner and his messengers and most of all we should respond to the vulnerability of the son.
Back in Isaiah, the fruit missing from the vineyard was justice and righteousness. The same is implied in Jesus’ parable too. How we make those same fruits of justice and righteousness appear now, in our day to day lives and in the work of this church, I’ll leave to your imagination – and to your prayers. Amen
- Bailey, K.E. (). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
- Brown Taylor, B. (1995). Gospel Medicine. Cowley Publications.