Puddletown and Dewlish
Sunday 8th October 2017
Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 33-46
Setting up a vineyard in the days of Jesus was no small undertaking.
First one had to clear the ground to make it ready for the planting of the vines.
Then, once the plants were in the ground, a hedge or fence needed to be put up to keep animals out that might eat the crops or thieves; next a watchtower was put up to enable the farmers to keep an eye on their crops and sometimes the workers were housed in the watchtower.
A wine press would be built ready for the harvesting. This consisted large stone pits. The grapes would be placed in the larger one and trodden down so that the juice ran into a second stone pit via a drainage channel.
Remember, of course, in those days most of this work had to be done by hand – and foot.
It was only in the fourth year of growing that the crops were really useable; they were pretty inedible before that, and according to Jewish Law the fourth year’s harvest had to be given to God, so it was really only in year 5 that the farmer was able to get any benefit, economic or otherwise, from his vineyard – or perhaps year 4, if the farmer were a Gentile.
At the time of Jesus, there were many absent landlords in the Holy Land, and it was quite common for tenants to be the ones who cared for the vines while the owners of the land lived elsewhere.
Occasionally these tenants were paid in cash, but more usually the landlord received either a set amount of grapes at harvest-time or a percentage of the crop.
The picture Jesus was painting at the start of today’s story was a familiar one to those who lived at that time in that place.
And at the beginning of the parable something else would have come to mind for those listening to Jesus as he told the story – remember that these are the chief priests and elders, well versed in Jewish Scripture.
Immediately they would have recognised the image as one found in Isaiah, where we are told the vineyard represents God’s people.
And it is clear from Matthew’s story that the slaves first sent to the tenants represent the prophets who were rejected, while the son is Jesus himself, who as we know was thrown out the of the city and crucified.
The tenants, the custodians of the vineyard – represent the religious leaders.
In past times this parable was sometimes used to justify anti-Semitism, but we must be clear that Jesus is speaking not against the Jewish people as a whole but against the leaders who had led them astray.
The landlord is, of course, God. Not that God is really absent from us at any point, but the key thing here is that like the tenants God allows us the freedom to make our own choices rather than pulling our strings.
It is for us to decide what foundations we will build our lives upon, and as a result how fruitful we will be. God gives us the privilege of working with him for his kingdom.
That’s all very well – but we could ask quite logically what this parable has to do with us, if it’s all about the rejection of the prophets and of Jesus by the Jewish leaders.
There is more for us to learn from this parable than might be at first apparent.
What is it that the tenants have done? What was their motivation?
Presumably they thought that, if they destroyed the slaves who had come to gather the crops, they could keep it all for themselves.
I’m not sure they’d banked on the landlord sending more slaves after the first lot. I don’t think they were far-looking in that sense.
But the landlord isn’t going to give up that easily – so he sends a second lot of slaves. Again, thinking in the short-term, they dispatch them too.
But the landlord still is not giving up. They won’t respect my slaves, he thinks, surely they’ll be on their best behaviour, if I send my son.
Not a bit of it – seeing a chance for them to get their hands on the vineyard for good, the tenants not only attack the landlord’s son, but throw him out of the vineyard and kill him too. Surely, they think, if the man has no heir, then we’ll inherit.
What they hadn’t bargained for is that the landlord doesn’t give up that easily – instead of handing over the vineyard to them, he throws them out and gives it to others who will give to him at harvest what is due to him.
Greed and short-term gain appear to be the motives of the tenants, like the man in last week’s story who decided to pull down his barns to build bigger ones. They are concerned for their own wealth. They want more than what is due to them.
Quite rightly this parable is often used against church leaders, but I think it can be broadened to all of us. We have all been given the gift and privilege of working for God’s kingdom whether we accept that or not.
Sometimes we throw Jesus out of the land because our greed takes over. Sometimes we throw Jesus out because we don’t have time for him in our busy lives. Sometimes we throw Jesus out because we don’t want the commitment he asks of us. Sometimes we throw Jesus out because we may have to sacrifice something – our money, time, even our relationships if they are not healthy.
We are all given the privilege of serving God. Some of us embrace the Son who has come for his grapes and willingly give all that is due; some of us try and hold back.
Look at what St Paul says in the reading from his letter to the Philippians we heard today. His attitude is the exact opposite of the tenants who want to grab more for themselves. Paul says he would willingly give up everything for Christ. When he sets other things alongside Jesus, they all look like rubbish, tawdry offerings not worthy of his calling.
Paul knows the power of putting Jesus before anything else in his life, and that’s what each one of us is called to do.
Knowing Christ is the gift that surpasses everything.
I wonder whether you have ever given someone a gift, and seen a disappointed look on their face, because it’s not what they really wanted.
Most people in that situation would be politely accepting of the gift, but you can tell if that’s a forced gratefulness or not.
How do we accept the gift that is knowing Christ? Do we embrace it with all our heart and soul and mind and being like St Paul did, counting everything else as secondary?
Or do we smile politely and put it on the back burner to be brought out for an hour on a Sunday morning?
How do you feel if you give someone a gift and then see them using it regularly? I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel good, if that happens.
Christ has always been clear that there is a deep commitment involved in accepting the gift of knowing Him.
Do we ever stop and think what an amazing gift it is we have been given – that we can know God? That we can have a relationship through Christ with the awesome Creator of the universe?
When we look at it like that, surely we can see why Paul through nothing else compared with it.
Do you remember the stories Jesus told about the pearl of great price, which the merchant found and then was so desperate to have it, he sold everything else?
Or the story of the man who found treasure in a field so precious that he too sells everything so he can buy the field that contains it?
That is the size of the gift we have been given by God – a gift that surpasses everything, a gift so great that nothing else really counts.
And yet, so often our commitment is as if we’re throwing that gift out with the rubbish.
Every time we commit an act of injustice or fail to speak out against one, we are denying that gift.
Every time we decide other things are more important and push out time for prayer and reading Scripture, we are filling our wheelie bin.
Every time we fail to love another human being we’re acting as the tenants did and throwing Jesus out of the vineyard.
Christianity demands a commitment to God, to God’s kingdom and to the Church, the Body of Christ. Without a deep commitment we are selling Christ and ourselves short.
We’ll all fail in our ability to give 100%, because that is the nature of being human, but a high target doesn’t mean we should give up because we know we will never attain it.
In contrast it should spur us on, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [we should] press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”.
 See picture at
 Philippians 3.14