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.