Too much going on at the end in the last one - plus the mistake, I think, of introducing another text from outside the lectionary, when there's enough to think about as it is.. so here is the final version
A friend of mine has one of these funny T-shirts – ‘God loves you – but I’m his favourite’. She doesn’t wear it very often – it’s hard to know just when is the right occasion: but it got me thinking. Do we really believe that God loves everyone – or do we secretly think that some of us have the right to wear a T-shirt like that without it being a joke? Does God actually have favourites? Are some people ‘insiders’ when it comes to God’s love, whilst others are outsiders?
The story of the vineyard can be quite dangerous – it can lead us to the conclusion that some people – namely Christians, are definitely more ‘in’ with God than others – namely Jews. The danger comes from how we read the story - when we look at this story of the parable of the vineyard there is a real danger of reading the story as an allegory – where each figure in the story stands for a particular person or group of people.
It’s easy to get sucked into this. ‘The vineyard’ is used in the Old Testament as a term for the people of Israel: they are ‘God’s vineyard’ – so it is tempting to see the first tenants as the Jewish leaders. Then the servants who first go to collect the rent are the prophets, and of course the Son of the owner is Jesus himself.
I think Matthew was probably pretty convinced by this sort of allegory – he even changes the order which Mark gives – they take the son, kill him & throw him outside the vineyard – and changes it round to sound more like the crucifixion of Jesus –
they take him, put him outside the walls of the vineyard (just as they took Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem) & kill him.
The problem with this sort of reading of the story is that it ends up becoming very anti-Semitic. If the story tells us that the first tenants are replaced, doesn’t this mean that the Jews reject God’s message & so are thrown out of the vineyard, punished by God, & that then the vineyard, God’s kingdom of love, is given to someone else – the Christian church? It is hard to believe that Jesus meant to tell a story which would entirely dismiss the Jewish faith when we remember that he and his disciples were of course Jewish themselves.
But Jesus begins by saying that this story is a parable. And in any parable we have to not try to work out what each part of the story ‘means’ but what the whole story teaches.
To do this one approach is to look for the surprise in the story. And the surprise here isn’t the way the tenants behave, but the behaviour of the owner of the vineyard – and particularly his persistence.
If you had this sort of trouble with tenants, wouldn’t you be tempted to just give up altogether, cut your losses & give up on wine-production?
But God doesn’t give up: he goes on and on hoping, trusting, trying to find people who will work with him.
We must, I think, understand this story in the context of God’s amazing trust in human nature.
This isn’t a story about the limits of God’s love – God’s love for one group and not another group of people. It is a story about the limitlessness of God’s love.
God keeps trying, keeps sending messengers: he doesn’t give up on his vineyard. And when the bad tenants are finally evicted… he tries again, he puts in more tenants.
This persistence and limitless love of God is consistent with Paul’s story which we heard in the letter to the Philippians. Paul states that he could lay claim to the love of God because of who he is – because of his birth and his belonging to God’s people - but that now his horizons have been broadened by understanding the love of God in Christ, which is for everyone.
So there is a place in God’s love and in God’s vineyard for everyone.
This parable tells us of God’s constant invitation to be part of the life of the kingdom. Whether you fancy yourself as religious or not, whether you are from one racial group or another, God keeps on inviting you to be part of his project of living in a way which shows love for God and neighbour & establishes a community of justice peace & joy. There is no ‘in’ and ‘out’ with God – everyone is invited, again and again, invited to be part of life of God in the world, called to follow Jesus & required to show in our lives the fruits of the Spirit.
As we meet around Jesus’ table, we come to share the meal of his life, and to declare that we are prepared to follow him and be part of the life of God’s kingdom.
As we eat and drink may we know Christ’s risen life and be fed and strengthened to live to his glory. Amen.