I am on the path to ordination as a deacon. Just last month I started my school classes. And one of the first things I learned about was the Hermeneutical Circle. It’s a method of looking at scripture. It involves three steps: looking at the world OF the text, the world BEHIND the text, and the world IN FRONT OF the text.
Since I just learned this new skill and need some practice…quite a bit of practice…I thought it would interesting to look at today’s Gospel using the Hermeneutical Circle.
Looking at the world OF the text involves only examining the words on the page. And this parable is a doosey for that exercise.
The parable: We hear about a landowner who created a fabulous vineyard. He leased it out to tenants and left the country. When he sent representatives to collect the harvest, the tenants killed the owner’s servants. This happened twice. Then the owner sent his son to collect the crop. The tenants killed him as well.
As we look at the world OF the text, there seems to be a lot of problems in this parable. Wouldn’t you think the owner would have done a background check on the tenants and found them to be bad people? Didn’t they draw up a contract of some kind? And after the first time the owner’s representatives were treated so horribly, why did the owner try the same technique two more times to claim his grapes? This owner must be incredibly trusting or incredibly dense!
And the tenants! Where did they come up with the idea they could just take over the vineyard as their own and not pay the owner his due? They are obviously a violent and immoral group – and not too bright either. Why do they assume by killing the owner’s son they will inherit the vineyard? They have no proof the owner is dead or that there are not more heirs in line.
After telling the parable, Jesus asks his listeners what the owner will do when he finally arrives at the site. (It’s interesting to note the question isn’t what SHOULD the owner do but rather what WILL the owner do.)
The listeners are quick to answer the owner will take vengeance and kill the evil tenants. The owner will furthermore find new tenants who are more amiable and will agree to hand over the harvest when it’s time.
Jesus rebukes the listeners for not knowing their scriptures and points out the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and someone more useful will take over.
We THEN learn the people listening to Jesus are the priests and scribes of the Pharisees. They realize Jesus is talking about them. Uh-oh! They suggested the owner should put them to a miserable death! They want to have Jesus taken away but fear the reactions from the crowds.
Now let’s look at the world BEHIND the text. This involves looking at what has happened before the passage one is reading. What did the people of that time already know.
We should note that this parable is told during the last week of Jesus’ life. He has been out preaching and teaching for 3 years. He has healed the sick, given sight to the blind, and raised the dead to life again. His triumphant entry into Jerusalem happened just the day before and he had run the businessmen out of the temple. Today, he has returned to the temple and is talking with the Pharisees who wonder what authority he has to do what he’s doing and say what he’s saying.
This parable shouldn’t be new to the people listening. Today’s lectionary makes it easy for us to know that this parable is taken directly from Isaiah. In today’s Old Testament, the prophet laments what will happen to a beautiful vineyard. Although the owner expected a bountiful harvest of delicious grapes, the owner received only heartache for his trouble. The Pharisees were learned, religious men. The reference to Isaiah could not have been lost on them.
And the Pharisees are well aware of who Jesus is, what he has done over the past three years, and who he says he is. All their questions are simply ways to try and trip him up so he will implicate himself in something for which he can be arrested. They want Jesus gone. And now the world IN FRONT OF the text. After 2100 years of history since this parable was told, what more do we know?
Today’s parable is actually an allegory. A parable is a story told to teach a lesson. Each character or thing in an allegory represents an actual person or object. The landowner is God. The vineyard he creates is the earth – or the church. The wicked tenants are those who take for their own use or gain the good works God has intended for them to do. The harvest is the fruition of those good works. The servants or slaves sent to collect the harvest are the prophets and martyrs who spoke the word of God. And the Son is Jesus.
In this particular case, the Pharisees are the wicked tenants. And they think they know what is best and have claimed religion for their own. They are not obeying the owner of the vineyard.
I want to stay in this world IN FRONT OF the text…..because we live in the world IN FRONT OF the text. Let’s imagine the vineyard in the parable is the earth – our home – our church. God is our landlord. We are here toiling away. Working hard to make sure there is a bountiful harvest. God sends his servants to collect that harvest.
What do we do?
First of all, exactly what are we growing and what are we harvesting?
The parable says the kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. It is clear I am not a Biblical scholar. I’ve only had three days of classes so far. But as a life-long student of the world and of God’s love and Jesus’ teaching – I suggest we look at the fruits of the kingdom as doing what we, as Christians, are instructed to do.
Let us tend the soil of humanity, let us nurture the crop that is made up of our neighbors.
Let us lovingly tend the vineyard with care and concern for every single plant in it.
Let us pray for nourishing rain and just the right amount of fertilizer to help us with this endeavor.
And let us allow each plant – each person – of our earthly vineyard to grow in its own time and space.
As we pour all of this energy into tending this vineyard, we have to remember it does not belong to us. God is the owner and we are the tenants. It is NOT all about us. We must not tend the crop and help it grow bountiful fruit with the expectation we are going to receive a pay off or adulation or money at the end. Tending God’s vineyard is the reward we are so lucky to receive. And we must remember there are other tenants as eager as we are to produce this harvest. We must all work together in this one big field. There is no place for egos. It is NOT all about me.
We must also remember it can be difficult work. We will get dirt under our fingernails. We will be sore from all the manual labor involved.
Second, who are these servants God is sending to collect the harvest? How will we know them when they arrive? And how will we treat them?
This week my husband and I went out to dinner. As we walked toward the restaurant a man approached us. He said he was trying to raise money to get a room for the night for his mother and himself. He offered to wash the windows on my truck. I gave him some money and wished him luck. Was that one of God’s servants coming to collect the harvest? How did I treat him?
Are the undocumented children from Central America arriving at our borders God’s servants looking to collect the crop? How are we treating them?
Is that politician with the exact opposite opinion as you God’s servant looking for the harvest? How do you treat him?
Is the person you’ve never met sitting in the pew behind you this morning God’s servant who has come for the harvest? How will we treat him or her?
I’ll tell you what. Instead of spending our time trying to answer questions about what is going to happen, let’s spend our time tending to the vineyard. As we tend the fields, we will also be tending ourselves – making ourselves ready for the owners’ representatives who come and collect the harvest. To do that we must keep in mind the world of today’s parable, the world behind today’s parable, and the world in front of today’s parable.
Let us tend the soil for others and for our own lives.
Nurture the crops as well as ourselves.
Lovingly care for each plant and ourselves.
Pray for nourishment for the plants and ourselves.
Allow each plant to grow in its own space and time and give ourselves enough space and time to achieve the goal as well.
It’s time to roll of up our sleeves and get to work.