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27 OT A ~ "Murder in the Vineyard" ~ Susan McGurgan


The Gospel story for this Sunday

is violent--

even savage.

It is a dark tale of greed,

Betrayal.

Beatings.

Stoning.

Murder.


This story,

the third of three vineyard parables

Jesus tells in the Gospel of Matthew,

explores a bold and brutal plan

to overthrow an absentee landowner

and steal his vineyard.


This is not

a crime of passion

or an unfortunate accident—

it is a group of people

launching premeditated attacks

against multiple innocent victims.


A few days before telling this story,

Jesus drove the money changers

from the temple.

And soon after telling this story,

Jesus himself was

betrayed,

beaten,

scourged,

and murdered.

This whole sequence in Matthew feels

heavy,

weighed down with sin

and filled with violence and loss.


The disturbing image of

murder in the vineyard

is at odds

with other rich and evocative

“vineyard passages” in the Bible.

Vines and grapes are mentioned

more frequently

than any other plant in Scripture.

Growing and processing grapes

was a major industry

and wine was one of the most

lucrative trade commodities

in the ancient world.


Vineyards in the ancient near east

had deep cultural,

economic

and religious importance,

and a long history dating back

to the late stone age.


The people listening to Jesus that day

knew about vineyards.


They knew that grapes

are not a quick and easy cash crop.

They knew that growing grapes is a long game,

played out over time.

Cultivating vines

requires knowledge and hard work,

ongoing care,

a watchful eye,

a bit of luck.


The soil and sunshine

have to be just right.

The rain,

enough

but not too much.

Pruning demands skill and precision timing.

The deep-pocket investment includes

a wall

to keep out intruders,

a pit

for crushing the grapes,

perhaps even

a tower

to overlook the field

and protect the operation.


For the first 3-5 years,

vines don’t produce grapes suitable for wine,

so the investment is immediate and ongoing

but the profit,

delayed.


The listeners

gathered around Jesus knew

that a vineyard is truly

a promise made to the future.

Labor is poured into the field today,

so it might be fruitful

tomorrow.


The listeners also knew that

while the sweat equity was local,

the payoff was frequently distant.

Absentee landowners were common

and profits

like taxes,

were often counted and enjoyed

far from the hills of Galilee.


In ancient Israel,

the cultivation of a vineyard

was a Torah-regulated industry of great importance.

Like a shepherd watching over his sheep,

tending the vines required a

deep relationship

with the land and with the vine.


So perhaps it's not surprising

that the tenants coveted this land

for themselves.

Maybe the owner had been absent

for so long

the workers began to believe the land

was truly theirs.

Perhaps they assumed the landlord had died,

or had forgotten this corner of the world.

Maybe they couldn’t imagine

handing over the fruits

of land they sweated over,

labored on,

sacrificed for,

to a virtual stranger.


Or maybe

they were just cruel and violent men,

looking to steal by force

what they could not own by law.


It is easy for us to distance ourselves

from this sad, strange story—

to read it as something that has

little to do with our own time and place--

to see it as "sacred"

but not really pertinent

to people walking the streets

of downtown Cincinnati.


The early Christian community

read this parable as an allegory

of their history.

Christians inherited the vineyard,

the covenant—

from the previous tenants,

the Jews—

who murdered the prophets,

and killed God’s Son and heir,

Jesus.


This story was seen as a

pointed and visceral reminder that God

“withdrew”

favor and blessing from the Jews

and transferred that blessing

to the Christian Church.

Over the years,

this disturbing passage

has been used to justify

hatred

against the Jewish people—

leading to persecution,

acts of violence,

even genocide—

in a misguided and sinful attempt

to exact revenge on a people

unjustly blamed for Christ’s death.


Other interpreters see this parable

as a universal call

to faithfulness and service.

The world is a vineyard given to us to steward.

We are not the owners,

but unlike the wicked tenants,

we welcome,

rather than stone,

abuse,

or kill the envoys and the son.


We are laborers invited into

the Kingdom work of

cultivating

tending,

pruning,

harvesting,

celebrating.


And I like this interpretation.


But I wonder.

Do we ever just stop and think how

crazy

this story is?

The landlord in this parable

is so determined,

so desperate,

so committed

to staying in relationship with these

wicked,

wrong-headed,

cold-hearted,

grasping,

violent tenants,

that he sends envoy after envoy,

messenger after messenger,

servant after servant

for them to abuse and reject.

When all else fails,

he even sends his own son

to be murdered in the vineyard.


It is almost insane.

I mean,

what rational person would do this?

After the first group was stoned,

beaten,

mistreated,

most landlords would either

cut their losses,

or send in soldiers and hired thugs

to eliminate the criminals

and take back the land.

Certainly,

after the second brutal encounter.

And without a doubt,

after the murder.

No savvy landlord

would continue to take such risks.


What profit is there in a harvest

when your agents are brutalized?

What wine

is worth the life of your child?

This story is not really about

“Wicked Tenants”,

as depraved as they may be.


No, this is the story of a

crazy landlord

who simply will not take

“No”

for an answer.

This is the story of a

stubborn landlord

who will not give up on his tenants;

a persistent landlord

who will not turn his back on the land;

a merciful landlord

who will not allow violence

to speak the final word.


This is the story of a landlord

who will risk anything,

commit everything,

try,

and try,

and try again

to win back people who appear to be

beyond hope,

beyond help,

beyond relationship.

This is the story of a landlord

who will send servant after servant,

messenger after messenger,

only to see them beaten,

abused,

murdered,

And without hesitation,

send his own son

into the same dangerous field

on the same dangerous mission.


This is either love so profound

it cannot be comprehended,

or it is

insanity.


Today,

God continues to send

servants and messengers

into our vineyard.

God’s servants come in all shapes and sizes,

and from all backgrounds

and positions

and points of view.

Some of them will look like friends,

and some of them

may look like strangers.

Some will be comforting,

offering mercy and love,

while others will push us

into radically new ways

of thinking or seeing.


A few may frighten us

by offering challenges

that make our hearts race

and our palms sweat.


They will invite us to honor life.

Call us to serve the poor.

Stand with us to demand justice.

Work beside us to care for creation.

They will introduce us to risky fields

and difficult missions.


We can welcome them,

or we can drive them away.

We can be open

to receiving the Landlord's messengers

or we can murder them in the vineyard.

The choice is ours.


In the end,

this parable is about you and me

and the vineyard surrounding us.

We can choose

murder in the vineyard,

and falsely live

as if the land and the profits

belong entirely to us,

or we can pledge our lives to the Vineyard,

sharing in the labor,

rejoicing in the harvest,

and waiting in joyful hope

to welcome the Landowner’s son,

whenever he arrives.


Some people might see this

as insanity

and maybe it is.

It’s either that,

or proof

of a love so profound,

it cannot be comprehended.

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