Harvest time should be a time of rejoicing. It takes a whole growing season, after all. That’s months of cultivation, hoping for enough rain, and that it falls at the right time. And don’t forget the money! For farmers, harvest time is the richest they’ll be all year. It’s no wonder that even 21st-century farming communities hold harvest festivals. It’s a happy time.
None of the characters in this morning’s parable were having a good time, though. Harvest came and went three times, but instead of celebrating they fought about money. There are lots of reasons they could have had a disagreement:
It might have been that the expenses of running the vineyard outpaced the amount the tenant farmers had been paid and so they kept back the owners share of the produce against money rightly owed them.
It also could be a case of poor peasant farmers who had lost their property to a rich land-grabber staging a minor revolt on the thin hope that they might get their land back.
Perhaps the interim crop simply wasn’t sufficient for the tenant farmers and they kept the entire crop as a way to survive.
Or, finally, it could have been that the tenant farmers were just greedy and violent. Some people are, you know. It is easy to paint the picture that way and many have. It is important to remember, though, that there may well have been mitigating circumstances which made the tenant’s position more reasonable, even right!
In any case, there was no joy. There was violence.
After the first year’s harvest, the owner sent some retainers to get his portion of the crop and the tenants beat one, killed one, and stoned one. One assumes that they could have simply refused, but no negotiations are recorded in the story, only violence. But, why? What provoked such a response?
The next year something similar happened. The owner sent some retainers to get his portion of the crop and the tenants beat one, killed one, and stoned one. Again, we do not know the thinking of the tenants. They may have been justified in withholding their pay. One wonders, though, what gave rise to such violence? Violence never happens in a vacuum. There is a catalyst, justified or not.
In the third year of the vineyard — it took four years of tending a vineyard to get any grapes — the owner sent his son, believing that the son would have better luck. It seems likely that the son was going to reclaim the vineyard, perhaps fire the tenants and hire new tenants. Only the owner, or the owner’s heir, could do such a thing, thus it had to be the son. Instead of resolving the issue, though, even more violence ensured. The tenants killed the son and heir.
First-century peasants would have heard a story about a clash of cultures. It’s a story about how greedy landowners added farm to farm, house to house, acquiring more and more as they went. This was against the social contract of the poor farmers who would not have wanted to disadvantage any of their neighbors. The fortune of individual peasant farmers depended on their ability to maintain the collective, thus the financial health of one ensured the financial health of all.
This is a story of the rich getting richer and the poor being wiped out. We all want to cheer for the poor farmers. They were fighting injustice, after all. And maybe they were! The fact of the matter is that the storyteller didn’t give us enough information to do more than speculate. That approach is tempting, though. We do love an underdog, and Jesus does too, of course.
If that’s all we see, though, we will have missed one of the most interesting snippets of scripture, and that is this:
“When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”
It is the religious leaders themselves to insist on yet more violence: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they said. But, in saying that, they condemned themselves. Just a few verses hence they will realize that Jesus was talking about them!
This reminds us of another story: The story of David and Nathan. You may remember that King David had an illicit affair and went to murderous lengths to cover it up. He thought he’d gotten away with it when he received a visit from Nathan. Nathan told David a story along the lines of this parable… some terrible injustice seems to have been perpetrated. Nathan asked David what should be done.
“As surely as the Lord lives,” Said David, “the man who did this must die!”
Nathan was even blunter than our storyteller today. He flat-out said, “You are the man.”
We have these two cases of violent actors condemning themselves with more violence. It’s almost as if those who live by the sword, die by the sword. But, that is not the way of Jesus or his followers. Jesus says not to return violence for violence, not even against yourself.
We don’t know how this story ends. A profitable exercise might be to write several endings to see what options we have for a final chapter. The storyteller did not do that for us. He has not wrapped it up, all nice and tidy. So there are things we don’t know. But one thing we can bet on is that this question will come to us one day:
“What should be done with that one… those tenants?”
On that day when we are asked about “those tenants,” who are an allegorical fill-in for others, anybody but us, we should be careful that our answers do not condemn us.
What should we do with our modern-day tenants? Those whom we think have done wrong, even though we might not have all the facts.
Oh, we think we know the answer. But be gentle with “those tenants,” those so-called others. You might wind up condemning yourself.
Violence never springs up ex nihilo. There are reasons. It feeds off other violence, it grows. All of us are somehow complicit. What happened in Las Vegas last week, for example, wasn’t a one-off. It is part of who we are, all of us. That violence is a piece of all violence, to which we’ve all contributed.
The good news is that we don’t have to condemn ourselves or anybody else either! We can respond with mercy. As Jesus said, “Put away your sword.”
How have you contributed to the cycle of violence and condemnation? Has your condemnation of others affected you? It may not be as obvious as beating, killing, and stoning. I certainly hope not. But the mental and emotional anguish to which we subject ourselves in self-condemnation can be just as brutal. Imagine how those religious leaders in today’s story must have felt when they realized that Jesus was talking about them and that they’d condemned themselves? Imagine how stunned David must have felt the moment he realized that he had condemned himself. There was no stoning or beating, but those self-condemnations were violent just the same.
What about you? Has there been a time when your harsh words felt warm and right in the moment but turned out to be just another turn in the cycle of violence? The reason we feel so bad about that after the fact is that when we condemn someone else, we may be condemning ourselves too. Long buried guilt and hidden sins condemn us in the condemnation we heap onto others.
The good news is that the circle of violence can be stopped. When we stop condemning ourselves we are more able to stop condemning others. Letting go of self-recrimination and regret can actually free us to show mercy, to speak and act with compassion.
Condemning one another is not our job. Vengeance belongs to God. Our job is to put away the sword, stop condemning others, and stop condemning ourselves too.
Put away your sword.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Isaiah 5:8…Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (NIV)
Matthew 21:40… “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?” (The Living Translation) Most translations leave out the words, “What do you think he will do?” and simply ask, “What will he do?”
In the Markan and Lukan version of this story, Jesus himself kills the tenants and gives the vineyard to others. But, this version is a little different. When we see some small difference it is a clue to take a closer look. There might be a little treasure waiting for you there!
2 Samuel 12:5-7… David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! (NIV)
Matthew 26:52… “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (NIV)
Matthew 5:39… But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (NIV)
Romans 12:19…Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (NIV)
Deuteronomy 32:35… It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip… (NIV)