Gardens are a necessity. Vineyards are a sign of abundance beyond the necessary. As terrible a gardener as I am, I can get a crop of vegetables in several weeks’ time. Not so with a vineyard. Vineyards take a long time and hard work to develop. Try googling “starting a vineyard;” the results might surprise you. After you buy the land (and not just any location will do), it costs $20,000 a year per acre to cultivate a vineyard, and there is no cash flow for 3 to 5 years while you wait for the grapes to be good enough for the harvest. There is a lot of patient, intensive work and commitment. Vegetable gardens are near-term cash crop; you can change it up every year. Vineyards are a long-term investment with one fruit produced for one’s lifetime.
That why the idea of vineyards is often used to speak about Covenant – that sacred oath in which God declares that He is our God and we are His people. After God has covenanted his people (and not just any people will do), it takes time and effort to reach the harvest – time that God will invest and care for his people – if they will only keep their hearts and minds turned toward God. God is continually invested “$20,000 per acre” in each one of us measured by grace, gifts, talents, and time. That “investment” is the sure sign of divine Hope.
And so, vineyards are a hopeful metaphor. The appear quite early in Scripture. When Noah gets to dry land he does plant a vegetable garden. After such a long period of time afloat, fresh food is not just a desire, it is a necessity. But the first thing Noah does after God makes a covenant with him? Noah plants a vineyard. In a poetic sense, it is Noah’s acknowledgment of the divine Hope and his commitment to covenant. And Hope has to be cared for.
Hope unattended is the vineyard overgrown. Heavy wood and extra shoots that takes vital nutrients and water away from the vines that should bear the fruit. Unattended, such a vineyard will produce fruit, but of wild and sour grapes. Such is the vineyard of Israel to whom Isaiah the prophet speaks.
Prophets do not predict the future. They speak to the present about that state of the covenant, the state of the vineyard. I can’t think a prophet that shows up to say, “Hey, you guys are doing a great job, keep it up!” The prophet is sent because a change of course and a change of heart are needed so that you enjoy the blessings of the covenant and not the curses. The prophet announces the possible curses, not as a prediction, but as an inevitability should the people not return to the Lord, the covenant, and care for the vineyard. Isaiah’s image of the vineyard’s wall destroyed, wild animals grazing on the grounds, overgrown with thorns and briers, is the reminder that you have wasted the “investment.”
But here’s the thing. The people never are the owners of the investment, the vineyard, or even the talents, gifts, and treasures. We the people are the tenants, the stewards of the vineyard and the gifts. All these things belong to the landowner. The landowner who planted, put, dug, and built; who invested in this plot of land knowing that at first there would be no harvest.
In the gospel parable, the focus is on the tenants. At long last the harvest – and suddenly the tenants revolt. They seized, beat, killed, stoned and that was just the first group of servants, the second group got the same treatment. The son of the landowner comes – and remarkably, the tenants kill him too and toss his body outside the vineyard like so much rubbish and trash. The action ends but the story continues in the answer to Jesus’ question: the landowner comes and “put[s] those wretched men to a wretched death and leases the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at proper times.”
Pretty straight forward stuff, right? The Israelites are the first tenants, they rejected the prophets, killed Jesus the Son of God, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were later destroyed, and many suffered a wretched death. And we, the Christian believers, we are the new tenants. Right? It all seems to fit. Pretty clear, easy to understand. Certainly, that interpretation has been held by the Christian churches for centuries.
But here’s the thing. What other time did Jesus tell a parable that was so evident on the surface as to every meaning of every detail? Didn’t he instead tell of hated Samaritans becoming good neighbors and of laborers in the vineyard working one hour getting the same wage as those who worked all day? Every other parable leaves us challenged, surprised, witnesses to a reversal, and sometimes we are judged. Don’t you begin to suspect that something deeper and more hidden is going on here? The thing about parables is that are not simply history lessons for a people ancient and past. They are a lesson for us who hear the living Word of God.
I think one understanding of the parable is that as the current tenants we are called to ever be reflective about our time in this vineyard. To continue to ask for Wisdom and the Spirit and enter into the question: Am I a good tenant? What part of my time in this vineyard reveals some degree of wretchedness? Reveals the failure to use or even offer my gifts? What were the times I wanted control so much I became a barrier to others using their gifts? To fail to engage such questions is to enter the gateway of wretchedness. And even engaging the question, does not ensure clear answers
We all have simple stories like that parable; stories that seem to lay in the in-between. Stories about which we would not naturally ask….who are the wretched tenants. Who might they be? They might be people in every age who are given the privilege of tending the vines planted by our God. Those who are those who are entrusted with bringing the vines to a good and abundant harvest. They are the ones who are tempted to the delusions that they own the gifts and talents that God has given them and thus they are entitled to take ownership God’s vineyard and dispose of the fruit, the good produce in the way they see fit.
Who are the wretched tenants? They could be you and me: priests and preachers, parents and school principals, butchers and bakers, catechists and children, teachers and truckers, doormen and deputies, soldiers and sailors – and the list goes on. Because each one of us in our place, with our gifts, are called to produce good fruits at the proper time. You do know that we can be replaced by new tenants unless we do what is ours to do? So how are we doing? Have we – at the proper time – produced fruit. A good question to ask, re-ask and then ask again
How have I done in producing fruit at the proper time? If I am honest it is a mixed record. I could have been a better son, friend, naval officer, business person, confidant, missionary, Franciscan, priest…and I suspect that soon enough I will add “I could have been a better pastor” to the list. How about you?
How about all of us that make up this vineyard called Sacred Heart? Are we the sign of divine Hope to the local community? That is why we have been planted.
Vineyards take a lifetime of care. May God gift us all with the wisdom to ask the questions about our stewardship, to seek forgiveness for our occasional wretchedness, and to persevere with our work in this vineyard. And when the Son comes again, may we go out to meet him with all the Saints in glory.