What then will the owner of the vineyard do?
During Holy Week we read Jesus’ parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. He tells this parable after he has thrown out the money changers from the temple and charged the religious establishment with selling out to the empire and manipulating the people for their own selfish gain. Instead of carrying out their mission as the faithful people of God, Jesus points out that they simply are protecting their institution so that their lifestyle can be more comfortable.
So what will God do with people like them? What will God do with people like us? That’s what the parable asks. The parable has a landowner renting out his vineyard to tenants. It sounds a lot like God giving us this earth to live on. The landowner sends servants to collect what is due to him as the owner. The tenants kill the servants. The owner sends more servants. They kill some of them and injure the rest. Then the owner decides to send his son, thinking they will respect his son.
That’s the point in the parable where I get stuck. Why in the world would an owner send his son, seemingly unprotected, into the midst of murderous and ungrateful tenants? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the owner to send in armed guards? If it was a modern parable, an air strike or drone warfare would seem justified. Why send his son? That doesn’t make sense. It seems insane to think the tenants would do anything different than what they have already repeatedly done.
But the owner sends the son. And, like a movie where we know the inevitable is going to happen, the son is killed. The parable ends with Jesus asking the question, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”
For me the parable sounds a lot like the flood narrative in Genesis. There God is displeased with his people, ashamed of creating them actually because they have behaved so poorly. He picks out Noah and his family and warns him about what is going to happen. He tells him to build an ark and fill it with all the life forms. Then he sends a tremendous flood and wipes out all of life except that which he has arranged to save. And, from that which he has saved, humanity is restored and rebuilt, recreated and renewed. And God promises never to destroy his people.
Just as the restoration of the people by God completes the story of the flood, the forgiveness that is expressed by God after the crucifixion completes the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. The flood narrative and the parable of the wicked tenants make a clear point: we don’t deserve to live; we have earned death by our selfish actions; we have all added to the destructive forces which take other lives and oppress people senselessly; we want what we want and we want it now and we don’t really think about the long-term effect of our self-centeredness; we are stuck in our sinful behavior and can’t correct it as hard as we might try. That’s the human condition. And the logical conclusion to that is that whoever made us should come back and wipe us out. The plan has not turned out as hoped. Something has gone horribly wrong with us. Whoever made us has every right to take us out.
But, as crazy as it sounds, the owner does send his son to the wicked tenants. And we kill him. But the owner is not duped. The owner actually knows what he will do next. The owner will forgive the wicked tenants. He will allow them to know the guilt of their actions and he will enter their lives in a brand new way. He will give them a brand new life in a brand new vineyard. As it turns out he is more than the owner. He is the loving parent of beloved children. He will forgive and forgive and forgive, more times than we can imagine. He wants more from us but will not destroy us when we do not deliver. He will love us into loving him more fully.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? Easter is the answer to that question.
The message of Christ is not that God will eventually destroy those who do wrong. The message of Christ is that forgiveness is infinite, without bounds. We are the wicked tenants. We have killed the Son. And the Father sends the Son back to us to show us that not even that action can keep the Father from coming to us in love. The Lord is risen. We are forgiven. We have given God our very worst. And God will only give us his very best, never anything less.
The risen Christ is God’s eternal answer to us. We killed his Son and he sends his Son back to us to show that we are forgiven even that. Truly nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.