The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
More than we deserve
What do you think you deserve? Maybe a nicer home, a bigger paycheck, more respect, a promotion, perhaps? What do you think you deserve?
This is the piece I find most fascinating, and disturbing, about today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. I mean, there is plenty of disturbing to go around. It’s actually a very violent story. But in a chilling twist, the parable ends with the owner of the vineyard sending his son, his heir, into the vineyard to collect the produce and the tenants kill the son. The reason they kill the son is because they think, with the heir out of the picture, the owner of the vineyard will will the vineyard to them – that they would be next in line. Through some kind of twisted logic they convince themselves that the vineyard owner will reward their murderous tendencies, will treat them as sons. After all, for all of their hard work, all that they were willing to do, don’t they deserve it?
Jesus' audience would have been familiar with the concept of tenant farming. It was not uncommon then for a landowner to lease his fields to farmers, just as it is not uncommon now. The expectation was that those working the land would return to the owner a portion of the produce in exchange for land usage.
Of course, the snag in this story is that the tenants decide to break the deal. In Jesus' story the landowner sends his servants to collect the produce that he is due. But instead of handing over the required share, the farmers beat and kill the servants. And so, perhaps foolishly, he tries again. This time the landowner sends a larger contingent of servants; but the same thing happens.
Something is going on here because after the first servants were killed, the landowner should have sent a police force or military might to regain his property and to punish those who killed his servants. Wipe them out or lock them up. But he didn't; he sent more servants to go on his behalf. He took another chance, gave them another chance.
It was not worth the risk; if he was just hoping for some produce, sending more servants into that dangerous situation was not worth the risk. The landowner surely knew that the tenants might do to the second group what they did to the first. The produce was not worth it; it was not worth the lives it cost.
And then, finally, the son. When all else fails. God only knows why the landowner sent the son. You can almost hear a collective gasp echo across the 2000 years. The tenants were obviously disrespectful; they violated agreements; they claimed things which did not belong to them; and they were violent. And he sent his own child. David Lose writes, “So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a think? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach...them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.”
The parable ends with the death of the son. It is a somber ending to a sad love story: the story of a landowner who tried everything to reach the ones who would only break his heart. And by the end of the story the tenants are ready once again to take advantage of the one who had proved too generous time and time again – to take an inheritance that they did not deserve.
Jesus ends the story with a question; he gives the ending to the religious leaders to whom the parable was directed – the chief priests and the Pharisees. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” And in a bitter twist of self-accusation, the religious leaders respond: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
As if this story were about the produce; as if that was what the landowner really wanted most.
The bitter twist is that they never really got it. Sure they understand eventually that they were the tenants all along. And they sentenced themselves to death. They condemn themselves. But they never really understood what the landowner is about. What would the landowner do in that situation, we already know from the story; the religious leaders, they got it wrong. The landowner could have put those wretches to death after the first round of killings or the second. But he didn't.
What the landowner does is crazy. It's try and try and try again – to reach them, to love them, to win them over. The ones in power had killed the prophets; the ones in power would soon kill Jesus too. But God would raise Jesus from the dead – and send him again to the very ones who put him to death. It is not what we would do; it seems absolutely crazy. But it is what God does. There is no length to which God would not go to win us over.
More than anything this Gospel story, this parable, is a salvation story – salvation history encapsulated in one devastating tale. It is the story of a God who pursues a humanity that responds with violence and anger. It is the story of a generous God who gives and gives to a people who are never satisfied. God offers us everything and we think we deserve more.
The tenants in the story were not content to work in the vineyard. They needed to own that which did not belong to them. It was never enough. They thought they deserved more.
From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.
Again and again, you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.
By his blood, he reconciled us.
By his wounds, we are healed.
It is our story – not just the story of some first century religious leaders, not just the story of Old Testament Israel. It is our story. God gives and we take and we take and we take.
What do we think we deserve? We want it all. To have, to hold, to own. To be the boss.
But while we struggle to grasp control, to gain the power, to rule the realm, the Kingdom of God is about spiraling down – a kingdom of downward mobility. Our Lord traded heaven for earth, a kingdom for a cross. And we are invited into that kingdom – to become the least, to work for that which we can never own.
Nothing is ours. It all belongs to God – this planet, this church, our stuff, our lives. We are just workers in God's vineyard. And though we struggle and strive and fight for our rights, and mistreat the gifts God has placed in our care, God is inexplicably merciful - like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child. Again and again, God looks into our violent hearts, into our greedy eyes, and offers us much more than we could ever deserve.