Wine, in the first century, was much more a common piece of life than it is now. Now, we might go out to a restaurant and order a nice glass - or we might think about pairing it with a particular meal - for dinner or a special occasion. At the time, though, the wine was something folks drank much more often - throughout the day, even - not to pair with their food or even to have a good time - but because it was the cleanest, safest thing to drink. Think about it - the first century wasn't known for it's cleanliness and irrigation. So, wine was one of those necessary things for life. Not a luxury, not a hobby, but a necessity. So, you can imagine, that a vineyard would be a valuable thing to own - and it produced something not just valuable - but important to the life and health of the whole community around the vineyard.
If we continue further into the allegory of Matthew's Gospel, we can begin to see that God is the landowner - leasing the vineyard out to the tenants who ignore, beat, and then kill the "slaves" or emissaries that the landowner sends. We, of course, are the tenants - the workers in God's vineyard - and the vineyard is the whole people of God - from which God hopes to reap the harvest of righteousness: a harvest of good fruit, brought forth by faith and good work, a harvest that can be pressed and transformed into the wine that will nurture, care for, and ultimately change the world.
The trouble is, the tenants (so, us) don't want to hear that it's time to give back the harvest. The tenants want to hold on to their work - which, on some level, I suppose we can't fault them for. The work is hard. It's laborious. It's heavy - and the climate is hot. First they have to grow the grapes and tend to them. Then they have to harvest them. And then, they go into this great wine press in the middle of the vineyard. And the winepress of the first century is rather like a shallow basin with a steep floor in the middle - and it's on this incline that the grapes would be pressed (stomped on, actually) by the workers. The juice runs down, collects in a basin, or goes right through a couple of holes into channels that take it further into vats. And in these vats it tends to sit for a few days as it ferments and turns into wine that's safe to drink. There are a lot of steps. And most of it is hard work. Hot, messy work that yields something incredible - not just through our own work - but also through the work of God - present in the waiting wine, in the magic of fermentation - in the wonder of nature that God has created that we can only try to understand. So, we do the labor - God does the transformation.
If, in this parable, the whole people of God is the vineyard - and as individuals, we are the workers, then each of us has specific work to do - work that contributes to the project as a whole and ultimately, through the health and wellbeing of the community around us, helps to build the Kingdom of God. And, it's helpful that the parable seems to recognize that our work is hard. Though we have assigned roles, specific gifts, Kingdom building work is never easy - it's always messy and hard. We don't always know the right way to go, the right thing to do, and sometimes it requires more of us than we expected. And we always need God to come in among us, with the power of the Spirit, to transform us and our work - because God can use even the little things we do to accomplish more than we ever could have imagined.
There's two really hard things about this parable, though. The first is the killing of the prophets - and then the killing of the Son. In a perfect world, with people who were inherently faithful, this wouldn't have happened. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it - God builds the vineyard and fills it with people. People like us, who are imperfect - who make mistakes - and who are always tempted to look out for ourselves first. So, these folks didn't necessarily want to hear the words of the prophets - calling them back to right relationship with God and with each other. And they (and we, lest you think we get to shove this off on other people) don't want to hear the words of Jesus, either - who comes to remind us that all that we have is a gift from God - and we are intended to use all those gifts for the building and growing of the Kingdom - so, in other words, for the harvesting of fruit, and the pressing of wine, in anticipation of what God might do.
The trouble with the tenants is that they forget that all they have - the food they eat, the land they live on, the tools they use - all of it belongs to the landowner. Rather like us. The life we live, the air we breathe, the family and friends we love, the resources we have in this life - everything has been given to us by God, who has given us a season to live in the vineyard - and to produce good fruit. The parable is intended to convict the Pharisees - and us, if we're honest; to force us to look at the gifts we have been given - and whether or not we're using them.
Are we contributing to the needs of the saints? Are we feeding our neighbors, clothing the poor, and loving the stranger? Are we calling our senators and representatives to protest unjust laws? Are we using all of our power and means in order to create a society in which everyone has what they need? Are we using our spiritual, intellectual, financial, and social resources in order to speak up for those who are voiceless and create space for those who are marginalized? Are we learning to be better allies, to own our privilege, and to stand with - specifically in our country today - our African-American, Immigrant, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters? And are we seeking to be peace-makers around the world?
Or, are we just enjoying the gifts we have? Keeping them for ourselves?
Because you see, it's important that the winepress is at the center of the vineyard. It's the place where all the grapes come to be transformed before they are sent back out in a different form to the whole community. The grapes come in as fruit, harvested yes - but still raw, untamed. And they are pressed - and shaped - and re-made into something else - by the labor of the workers - and the goodness of God. This press is rather like the church. Where we come each week, from all around, to do our part - to serve - to be reshaped - and, by the goodness of God, to be transformed before we are sent back out to nurture the neighborhoods and the world around us. Sent out, as the Apostles were, to change the world. From this one central place - which should also be the center of our lives if we are, indeed, the people of God.
Now, if you're saying, wait a minute...we're the vineyard, and the workers...and the wine? Yes, I hear you, but I'm not suggesting we're the wine, exactly...but that, in fact, the wine is the fruit of our faith being transformed. I'm suggesting that when we come to church, to be restored, we bring with us the raw scraps of our hearts - our lives - our intentions, our successes and failures - and that when those raw things come together - with our work and God's blessing, something else is created that can comfort, challenge, love, pull at, feed, nurture, and completely change the world around us. I'm also suggesting that sometimes in church, there are times when we are the ones doing the hard work of pressing (on ourselves or on others) - and sometimes it's others who press us into new ways of being and new understandings. And in all cases, I'm suggesting that if we do the faithful work, the work each of us has been given to do - that God will come, mercifully, lovingly, and bring the transformation. And make sure that what's in the wine - is just what the world needs.
In my sermon this morning, I also talked a little bit about what happens if we don't do the work - which is a present warning in the parable. The threat isn't what the Pharisees foresee - but instead, it's the idea that those who don't do the work will be replaced. Those who wish to keep the fruit and the wine for themselves, or those who are too distracted or too lazy to do the work - will be replaced by people who will do the work and who will give back the produce. God will have God's way one way or another. God's mission will continue with or without us - God will find ways to restore right relationship between us and bring everyone into relationship with God - even if we are too lazy or too caught up in ourselves to help. And the tragedy of being replaced isn't that we believe in a punishing God who will hurt us or terrify us - it's that we'll be left out - that we'll miss out - on the joy of this work, on the gift of community, and on the blessing and transformation of God. The tragedy is that we miss out on the fullness of life now. And who really wants to miss that? I can't imagine wanting to miss out on the beauty - and wonder - and sometimes bittersweetness of the building of the Kingdom of God.
So, I hope that today - and throughout this week - you'll let this parable confront you. Take stock of the gifts you've been given. Remember that they all belong to God. And that from them you are intended to harvest good fruit - which you must give back to God - through your faith and your participation in Christian community - AND through your faithful engagement in the world around you on behalf of your neighbor...
And know that if you do that work, no matter how messy and difficult it may be, God will work through you to do more than you ever could have possibly imagined.
To read the lessons for the day, click here. We're on Track 2.