The scholars of the Jesus Seminar suggest that the part of this story that talks about the 3 slaves of the owner, and then the son of the owner are additions to the parable. Added, perhaps, by the early church to make sure that the links between the persecution of Jesus and the prophets before him by the Israelites are understood by the listener.
That, of course, is arguable by fans and foes of the Jesus Seminar. What no one questions is the notion of the chosen people as tenant farmers in a vineyard. And that is what I would like to explore today.
Our culture considers tenant farming to be one social notch above migrant workers as a profession. Rags to riches stories abound telling of the determined young man or woman, raised by tenant farmers, finding true success through hard work, sacrifice and rising to a place far beyond their humble beginnings. We clearly do not equate success with tenant farming.
In fact, its almost un-American to think that tenant farming is an acceptable way of life, let alone one to be aspired to. The American dream is to own something….anything….but most of all your business or land. In fact, ownership has taken an odd turn in our culture – it is a two edged sword. One edge is ownership as responsibility – it is a stewardship model. The other is pride of ownership – for evidence of that, you only need to check out the new truck or furniture ads.
So, who would want to be a tenant farmer in the vineyards of the Lord ?
Then we need to consider what it means to work in the vineyards. Not the metaphorical vineyards, but the real thing. The growing of grapes is a long term commitment. And vineyards were very important to the people of Jesus’ time.
Growing grapes is not like…say…..planting onions or corn. Those you plant, weed, and harvest. Save the seed, plant again. It’s a good year or a bad one, depending on the weather, but both can be stored against the bad year.
Grapes grow for many years, and do not bear fruit immediately. Corn is grown, grapes are tended. The vines are trained, and trimmed. The leaves are watched for signs of fungus infection and must be pruned immediately when it is seen. The plants must be carefully manured; the new starts rooted; the old vines removed when they no longer bear. The fruit is gathered at exactly the right time, and processed into juice and wine. All in all, tending a vineyard is very labor intensive. It requires what a Buddhist would recognize as “mindfulness”. Day in and day out, one must be aware.
When I think of a modern day example of tending the vineyard, the community of Benedictine sisters I know comes to mind. The work of the group is put before individual needs and wants, but there always seems to be enough space for individuals. Many of the community work outside; in hospitals, nursing homes, administration, retreat work, teaching. If you remember Sr. Barbara Jean, who gave a workshop for us a year or two ago; she is an outside contributor to the work of the monastery. For every one who works “in the world”, there are at least three who rotate through the laundry, the infirmary, the kitchen, the gardens – even the forest. Sr. Carol is the monastery forester. And Sr. Wilma, at 80+ years, puts in the huge monastery garden. This is what I think of when I think of tenant farmers in the Lord’s vineyard. And these farmers are peaceful, prayerful and live to a very ripe old age. Indeed, the sisters who work in the world have a higher rate of illness than those who work at home. And people who would never dream of being tenant farmers, flock to spend a week at the monastery; to study, be on retreat, to help harvest the gardens, to be quiet. The current retreat mistress claims that it takes visitors at least 36 hours to unwind and approach the pace of monastic life. Mostly, Sr. Lillian says, “you need to sleep !” I have never slept better, on a worse camp cot, than I do at the monastery.
But our lives here are neither the vineyards of Palestine nor the monastery. We live squarely in the middle of American culture, with its compulsion to own, control and demand. We may have to work out our own way of reflecting the call to be tenants on the farm, or just on the earth.
Clearly, choosing to serve full time in the vineyard is a counter culture choice. It demands mindfulness, attention to the little things. It boasts of no ownership, it is dependent on the weather and the intentions of the landlord.
Why would any red-blooded American reframe their life as a tenant farmer ? Why would one give up grand notions of taking control of your life, dreaming larger and larger dreams, aspiring to great wealth; all to labor elbow to elbow with others of the community, - even this community, - for the fulfillment of the gospel ?