In the pantheon of parables, this one probably ranks ear the top. Now, it’s no “Parable of the Prodigal Son” or “Parable of the Sower,” mind you. But, it does have a lot of the traits that we look for in a good and relatively easy to decipher parable and it packs a lot of theological punch, too. So, it’s worthy of our paying attention.
The economics of ancient farming in this particular case: the whether and the why of the land owner’s plan to lease his vineyard to tenants are pretty straight forward here. The practice is what we would later come to call ‘share-cropping’. The tenants work the land, paying the owner a portion of the (literal) produce for the privilege. The mechanics seem simple, although some have speculated that the arrangement may have been as fraught with abuse in the time of Jesus as it was in the turn-of-the-19th-century U.S. Although this is not the type of abuse that drives the parable.
The problem is with the tenants themselves, not with the land-owner or the arrangement. They are, as the traditional moniker for the parable says, wicked, mistreating and killing envoy after envoy of the landowner, including his son. Now, one may question (as I did in this week’s sermon) whether the landowner was wise in his sending of repeated debt collectors, but that again is not the main point of the story. The pattern of servants followed by the son, who the wicked tenants also have a mind to kill, is a metaphor for the long relationship between God and his people. The servants and slaves were various prophets and the son, of course is Jesus.
Far from simply being a critique of the leaders of ancient Judaism, however, this parable also provides an invitation for those of us on the Way. After shifting his metaphor for a moment, Jesus returns to the language of the farm saying that God still seeks those who would bear the fruits of righteousness. And here I think he means us. We, too, are the keepers of his vineyard. Will we be willing to produce the produce when the time comes?