Summary: As long as there have been people in the world some have tried to cheat others. In the Parable of the Vineyard, that is exactly what happened.
Having served most of my ministry in rural east Texas, several of my church members have done some farming. And over those years I became at least somewhat familiar with sharecropping, particularly a form of it that they called farming on the halves.
At first thought, I would never have imagined that there could ever be any real trouble in sharecropping. I mean really, what is the big deal? If you are farming on the halves, half goes to the landowner and half goes to the farmer. It really is a pretty easy concept. Even if the sharing were on the basis of three to one, four to one, ore even 100 to one, the concept is still the same. You take the total amount of crop grown, divide it by the agreed upon percentage between the person who owns the land and the farmer who is actually growing the crop.
I guess that the biggest problems can occur when the landowner doesn’t live in the area where the farming is taking place. When that is the case an amount of trust is necessary between the absentee landowner and the farmer. The landlord needs to know that the tenant will send the landowner’s share and that all of the accounting methods will be done correctly.
There is the rub. Wherever there are people, someone will work hard to try to get the edge and take advantage of somebody else. Cheating and stealing have been present in our world just about as long as there has been a world. The problem doesn’t just exist in the farming community. It is everywhere.
Our lesson this morning finds Jesus telling just such a story. On the surface this parable is a story about sharecroppers and landlords. The landlord provided a prime piece of land for the sharecroppers. Everything was there they needed. All that the workers had to do was take care of things and give the landowner his fair share. It would seem that this was even a little too much to expect. Harvest time came and the landowner sent his servants to get his share. They met resistance from the tenants to the point they were killed, beaten and stoned, the Scripture says. The landowner then sent more servants. They had the same disastrous and deadly results. Then he sent his son. He thought that they would respect his son and give the landowner his due. Instead they thought they saw away to steal the vineyard from the landowner so they killed his son too. Finally, the owner of the vineyard comes to take possession of what belonged to him, put the tenants to death and then give the vineyard to more trustworthy tenants.
That is the surface story of the parable. But, as with any of Jesus’ parables, there is a much deeper, spiritual, meaning to this story. God of course is the landowner. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. The tenants are the Israelites. The produce is the fruit of righteous life which consists of love of God and love of neighbor. The servants are the long line of prophets that God sent to warn Israel to change the way it lived. And, of course, the son is Jesus, who here states another prophecy, that he would also be killed. The new tenants are the new chosen people. They are the gentiles. They are us.
As we read this parable it is really easy for us to see that big trouble is brewing for the Israelites. For centuries the Israelites lived their lives virtually ignoring everything that God wanted them to do. The story could be taken back to the beginning with Adam and Eve. God gave them instructions that they ignored. The troubles and disobedience continue with the Israelites and Moses. It would seem that every time that Moses turned around they were ignoring him and grumbling against God. Then there were the judges and the kings (many of whom turned away from God themselves) and then the prophets. All of them were sent to warn the people that God would hold them accountable for what they did in His vineyard. Again and again the Israelites ignored God. So, God sent Jesus. With Jesus’ coming, and now prophesied death, the end would come for God’s patience with the Israelites and the vineyard would be given to someone else. Today, we understand that to be the Church of Jesus Christ. We understand it to be us.
What also seems clear to me, however, is that Matthew didn’t really intend this parable so much for the Israelites as much as perhaps he intended it for us. Remember, these stories were not written down until many years after the death of Jesus. For Matthew, the Kingdom was now in the hands of a few Jewish converts and the gentiles. So, is this a story of great joy? Christian folks now have the Kingdom. Or, is it a story of sorrow? Other folks have lost the Kingdom. Or, is there something else that is present here? As I read and study this story it seems very clear to me that there is something else here, there is a clear warning to the current tenants of the vineyard. If they don’t produce fruit in the vineyard, they could lose it too.