The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2006 authorized a change from the Prayer Book Lectionary to the Revised Common Lectionary to be effected by Advent 1 2007. There are times I wish we had switched earlier. This is one of those times. The parable of the tenants and the vineyard is one of those episodes that could be dropped from the canon.
The passage from Isaiah is perfectly lovely. The prophet is imagining the return from exile as a new Exodus. Just as God made a path for God’s people through the mighty waters as they came out of Egypt, so will God do equally great things to bring them back from exile. This idea has to be set securely alongside the passage from Luke. We must remember that God’s promises are never null.
The parable of the tenants and the vineyard refers the reader back to Isaiah 5. In Isaiah 5, the prophet sings a song of his beloved and his vineyard. God (the beloved) has planted a vineyard on Mt Zion. He has cleared it of stones, built a tower in it, dug a wine press in it, built a wall around it, and then has come looking for fruit but finds only wild grapes. God has come looking for righteousness and find bloodshed. The prophet goes on to say that the vineyard is Jerusalem and Judah. God will tear down the wall around his vineyard, let it go to weed and give it over to grazing, because of its unfruitfulness. Clearly the prophet is struggling to understand Jerusalem’s impending doom.
In Luke’s variation (taken almost completely from Mark), God sends servants (prophets) to God’s vineyard (Jerusalem). The tenants mistreat some and kill others. Finally, God sends God’s son — surely they will respect God’s son and give God some of the fruit. Of course, they don’t. The decide that if they kill the son, the vineyard will be theirs, so they throw him out of vineyard and kill him. Therefore, we are told, God will kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. The vineyard is no longer Jerusalem, but the promises given to God’s people, which have now been taken from Jews and given to Christians (according to the parable). We have shifted from punishing an unfruitful vineyard, to killing tenants and giving the vineyard to others.
It is hard to know how to treat this parable, other than simply to argue against it. Maybe our response as Christians is to give the vineyard back — to tell God we don’t want it on these conditions. Maybe our response is to cultivate another vineyard cleared by our own labor. At any event, we ought to be giving the fruit away, just as fast as it grows, perhaps inviting all to share the wine it produces.
The Revised Common Lectionary has John’s account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet. I’ll look forward to preaching on that three years from now.