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Trouble at the vineyard
Matthew 21:33-41

Colin Gibson

When Jesus had finished telling his story there was a long silence.   Then one young,  well-dressed man said brightly,  ‘You know,  you can never trust others to do what you should be doing yourself.   That landlord was an idiot thinking that peasant-workers could be left in charge of something as complicated as a vineyard.’   He was just about to launch into his own story about some disaster or other he’d had with tenants when he realised that most of the people around him were peasants,  and hastily shut up.   Explaining to those nearest to him that he really had to go to attend to some urgent business,  he rose and left.   Silence fell again,  until there came a voice from the crowd:  ‘But I don’t understand.   Why didn’t the workers recognize the landlord’s son?   Surely he’d been among them at some time or other.’   ‘Don’t you believe it’,  responded another voice:  rich men’s kids get sent to boarding school,  they’re not left to hobnob with the likes of us.’

Again silence descended,  and Jesus just sat there with his disciples around him.   Then one of the women listening to the story said (bitterly),  ‘well, I know we’re not supposed to say anything in the presence of men,  but there’s men for you.   What’s this story about?   It’s about men!  A landlord,  a son,  tenant farmers,  male slaves — they’d never send a woman on business like that.   And a Gallilean guy who’s really telling a story to get at our marvellous all-male priesthood… and that male disciple with him,  recording the whole thing.   (One of the disciples hastily stopped writing on a tablet,)   The woman went on.  Not a woman among them:  we always get shut out;  the invisible race,   that’s us.   I don’t need such stories:  I might as well read a Mills and Boon romance or the latest edition of Vogue.

But another woman beside her disagreed,  and said,  ‘But don’t you see?   We are there!  ‘How do you suppose the landlord’s wife felt?   I wonder if she ever knew anything about her husband’s business operations,  though I reckon she was excited about that trip overseas.  Perhaps nothing came home to her until she heard about the trouble at the vineyard and found out her husband was going to send their son  (her son)  to fix it.   Did she spend sleepless nights worrying about him?   And imagine how she felt when the news reached her that he’d been killed — like that,  in a far away place,  so lonely,  so far from her.

And what about the mothers and wives and partners of the slaves who died for no other reason than that they were doing what they’d been sent to do by their boss?   And what about the women of the tenant farmers;  surely they had mothers,  even grandmothers still alive (some of them) and wives and daughters.   Were they consulted about the men’s plans to murder those people and keep the vineyard business for themselves?   I bet they weren’t.   And I do wonder what happened to them afterwards.   For every tenant,  a widow;  for every body a woman weeping.   And what kind of life ahead of them?  They might have had decent meals and a house and regular work while they looked after that cursed place.   Perhaps for the first time in their lives.   But with no man in their lives ever again — who would marry a poverty stricken widow,  with children to feed,  and a story like that about her neck — what else could they expect but destitution and endless misery.   Men never think about the cost to us of what they do;  we always end up the victims of their failed business schemes and their bloody violence to each other.   He should have known that:  he should have put us into the story too.

She started to wipe away a few tears,  but a man sitting beside her sneered:  ‘stupid women! They never do anything but cry about suffering and being put down.’   But what interests me is the landlord — I reckon the fellow meant the landlord to stand for God;  after all they’re both boss types.   Typical of both of them, too.   I mean your landlord and your God,  they’re absentees most of the time.  Never there when you need them or want them.  They let the place go to rack and ruin,  then all of a sudden they remember they’re in charge and come booming in and wipe out a few offenders.   Then it’s back off-shore again,  and out of sight and out of mind.   Here’s a few murderous tenants cleaned off the slate — but not before they’ve killed several innocent people and nobody can bring them back to life.   Have you noticed that every time some such disaster strikes we call it divine retribution,  or an Act of God;  and what use is it,  except to give the survivors a bit of satisfaction?

‘Hang on!’  interjected another man,  ‘ You miss the point!   What if God or the landlord hadn’t done something drastic like that?   The tenants would have been left in full possession of the vineyard,  enjoying a world they had no right to.   If everyone acted like they did,  it would be open slather.   No properties would be safe;  every one would just take what they wanted.   It would be complete mayhem and chaos.  And murdering the owner’s representatives,  and his son.   What price human life?   We need God to be in charge,  ready to punish sin and guilt.   As a matter of fact,  I think that story’s about the Last Judgement,  and all of us are the tenants,  who think they can take over control of the world,  and leave God out of the equation all together.   But you can’t,  see.   Without justice,  life turns brutish and nasty and completely self-centred.   We’re only kept good,  all of us,  by being frightened of what will happen if we turn bad.’

‘Control freaks!   You’re all control freaks!’  yelled a tough-looking working woman.   ‘And you’re all on the side of the bosses,  because you’re scared for your own property and your own good-living.   What about the tenants?   The boss puts them into a job,  sure,  because he’s the only one with the capital and the power to set up a business.   He’s probably filthy rich,  anyway,  and doesn’t need the bloody vineyard.   It’s just a hobby-interest for him:  you know,  a boutique wine with his name on it,  never mind the people who actually worked to produce it.   They,  poor devils,  earn a wage that’s just enough to get by on,  while he siphons off all the profits to pay for his overseas trips.  Those tenants remind me of the early communists.   And the only way they could break the monopoly on property and goods and wealth of the rich was to seize the landowners’ land and fight force with force when the landowners came looking for their property.   It’s always the same story;  the poor struggle to get their hands on a little bit more of the world’s goods,  and then the powerful and rich overwhelm them;  the revolutionaries get wiped out,  and the survivors have to start all over again.   If the guy who told that story was on the side of the losers,  he’d want us to get annoyed at the landlord,  not at the tenants.

‘Excuse me’,  murmured a clerical-looking man.   ‘But we’re getting way off track here.   This story is not about politics but religion.   Jesus is a religious leader after all.   And while I wouldn’t go so far as to keep religion completely separate from politics and economics,  they are different,  you know.   I have to say I’m disappointed in this story;  it’s not much more than another cheap shot at the Church.   I just don’t believe that the Church is always in the wrong,  denying its prophets,  killing God’s messengers — and surely it’s far too exaggerated suggesting that God’s own son could be amongst them.  God’s not like us!  God doesn’t have children as we do:  God is different,  way beyond us,  way beyond our understanding.   And the Church has produced so much good,  so many good people,  throughout its history;  it’s ridiculous to accuse it of being blind and deaf to its very reason for existence.’

Then one of the disciples — the one who’d been taking notes while Jesus was talking — couldn’t contain himself.   ‘But don’t you see,  that’s the point of the story.   It’s the Scribes and the Pharisees who are against us.   Who’ve always been against us.   They’re the criminals,  they’re the ones who seized the vineyard and even went so far as killing to keep it in their possession.   Look,  they’ve seen off every prophet who ever spoke up for the little people and against the establishment.   I’ve never known one of the high and mighty who cared a damn for us.   At last we’ve got another leader who’s on our side.   Down with the Scribes and the Pharisees!   Down with the Scribes and the Pharisees!’   He was just going to start a chant,  when Jesus put out a restraining hand.

Silence fell again.   It lasted a long time.   Finally one man turned to his neighbour and muttered,  ‘Who knows what it means.   I’m sick and tired of religious nutters telling mysterious stories.   And I bet they’ll be arguing about what it all means till kingdom come.   Give me something straight and to the point,  I’m off to watch tele:  you don’t have to think when you can settle in with a beer and game between the Warriors and the Roosters.’   I’m going home.   And he did.


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