This morning’s parable would have seemed very real to Jesus’ audience. Some of the crowd probably knew large sections of Scripture for memory so they would have recognized the allusion to the prophet Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. In it, the prophet likens the chosen people and their promised land to a vineyard planted in fertile soil, lovingly tended, and yielding only the bitterness and disappointment of wild sour grapes.
The story relates not one violent incident but three, in a pattern of escalating violence. Patterns of violence begetting more violence like those we hear about almost every day. It sickens us as I imagine it sickened Jesus’ audience.
But the wronged party, in Jesus’ story, the owner, does not react in quite the way his audience or we would expect. Here is Jesus’ invitation to look hard at our sense of justice and retribution.
The parable says that the man who planted the vineyard and leased it sent slaves to collect his rent. Instead, the slaves are thrashed, killed, and stoned. Without explanation, the vineyard owner does not punish the tenants.
Our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice cry out for vengeance and the punishment of these wicked people. Surely the owner is going to show these people that they can’t get away with this. But no, he unbelievably sends more slaves who receive the same treatment. There is an unbelievable quality here because Jesus is teaching that God’s ways are – well – unbelievable.
This man refuses to return violence for violence. Repeatedly, he hopes that somehow the tenants will recall their original contract. They will recall their original relationship and give him his due. Maybe, if I send my son, he thinks, the tenants will recognize my regard for them.
Jesus shows us that God’s response to disobedience and rejection will not fit into our ideas of justice and retribution. God, like the owner of the vineyard, will go to any length, even beyond the believable, to assert his love for us. Although God’s rule will come to pass he will not rush in to heroically destroy the wicked and protect the righteous according to any human sense of timing or revenge.
Jesus challenges our presumptions about God. He pushes our limits by insisting that God’s love is extravagantly generous and forgiving embracing even the wicked. Jesus says that we can be the beneficiaries of this love.
Jesus recognized the great cost of his teaching. He knew that his teachings of non-retaliation might mean that some would endure repeated violence. And by his death he showed us that he is willing to pay the cost.
Am I willing to do so? Are you?
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