Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Cruel Vine Dressers


Matthew 21:33-41 (Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-16)

This parable was told after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, during the last week of his life on earth. He had wanted to bring the gospel of salvation to his beloved people during the years of his ministry, but they had not responded. Later the week, he lambasted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. While they were building tombs for the prophets and decorating them, they were bent on destroying him, the Messiah, the one greater than all the prophets. Finally in exasperation and frustration he lamented the fate of his beloved people and city in words recorded in Matthew 23:37-38. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate."

The parable of the Cruel Vinedressers is reminiscent of the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. "My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it." Jesus' parable likewise emphasizes the great care shown to the vineyard. The master placed a "fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower." The master had set aside a fertile hill for it, cleared it of stones, built a watchtower and a wine press, and planted choice vines.

In Jesus' parable the master of the vineyard had taken special care and given special attention to the vineyard so that it would be fruitful. This was no ordinary vineyard, and the master expected a fruitful harvest. (This story could have been about parents who had provided for their children all the things necessary for success: love and end encouragement, music lessons, sport camps, top-of-the-line computers, the best private school education, and the money to attend the finest universities. After that lavish care and attention, most parents would find it difficult not to expect that their children "would amount to something".)

The master, after having done everything possible to insure the financial success of his vineyard, leased the vineyard to vinedressers and went to another country. When harvest time came, he sent his servants to collect the produce. He expected a bountiful harvest. Because he had spared no expense in the establishment of his vineyard, he must have chosen his vinedressers with care. Their special skills must have earned them "top dollar", and he had every right to expect that their loyalty and skill, along with his capital investment, would make the vineyard a successful business venture.

In Isaiah's story, the master planted choice vines but harvested wild grapes. In Jesus' parable, three of the master's servants sent to collect the grapes from a bountiful harvest were terribly abused: one was beaten, one stoned, and one killed. Apparently the master tried to excuse the tenants. Perhaps his servants had acted insolently or had done something to provoke them. So he sent another group of servants. But they were abused as badly as the first group.

The story of God's relationship to his Chosen People, as recorded in the Old Testament, is a record of God's patient longsuffering. The story of Hosea and the taking back of his wife who had turned to prostitution is analogous to the story of God's experience with Israel. Apostasy, idol worship, sacred prostitution, child sacrifice and syncretistic worship mark their departure from their own religious laws. Israel's mistreatment of prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Zechariah, and Jeremiah is symbolized in this parable.

The experience of Jeremiah is typical. Jeremiah lived at the time of Josiah, and he must have supported the young king's religious reformation. However, after Josiah's untimely the death, religious practices took a turn for the worse. Jeremiah preached against superstitious reliance upon the temple to protect the nation from any catastrophe. This earned him a death sentence, but the princes and people came to his defense, and his life was spared. When Jeremiah preached against the evil reign of Jehoiakim, his life was again threatened, and he had to go into hiding. His prophecies against the king were read to him by Jehudi, but as he read a portion of the scroll, it was cut off and thrown into the brazier where the king was warming himself.

When Jeremiah proclaimed the imminent doom of Jerusalem, Pashhur, the priest, beat him and put him in stocks. There were many prophets after the Babylonian invasion that proclaimed Nebuchadnezzar's swift retribution and a speedy return of the Israeli exiles, but Jeremiah gave no such assurance. His was very unpopular, and his message was regarded as unpatriotic, disloyal, and treasonous. He was arrested for desertion, beaten, and placed in prison. Later he was cast into a cistern and left to die before being rescued by friends.

The difficult and unpopular message that Jeremiah proclaimed saved Judah from captivity and later from extinction. Yet his reward was suffering, persecution, imprisonment, and constant opposition. Unfortunately, Jeremiah's experience was typical, not only of the treatment of Israel's prophets but of Jesus, the Messiah. In the Jesus' parable, the master finally decided to send his son saying,

They will respect my son.
But instead the vinedressers rationalized,
This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance. So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
When Jesus asked,
Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?
His listeners replied,
He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.
In Isaiah's story, the master of the vineyard declared,
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

Both warnings were not taken seriously at the times they were delivered. In Jesus' parable, note that God was not dependent on a particular group of people to be his vinedressers, even though he was reluctant to give up on those he employed first. Other tenants can take their places.

While it is clear that the cruel vinedressers and the good vines that produced wild grapes are warnings directed specifically to the nation of Israel, we need to be aware that we, as Christians, are the vinedressers and the choice grape vines of today. In Romans 11:17-22, Paul warns the Gentiles who had been grafted into the vine of Israel.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, `Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

If this warning is appropriate for the Gentiles, it is also appropriate for the Christian church. There was no guarantee for Israel, chosen by God, blessed by God-given laws and the prophets of the Old Testament, with miracles throughout their history, and with the Messiah himself. Consequently, Paul says that Gentiles converts should not be lulled into false security thinking they cannot fail. Surely there is no room for complaisance today.

Let it not be said of us as Isaiah said of the Jewish nation, "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry."

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