A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 5, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 21:33-46
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When the American Civil War ended, former slaves suddenly found themselves freed.  They also found that they had no capital and little if any education.  This left them unable to purchase land to start their own farms and unable to stabilize themselves sufficiently to start educating their children.

Many former slaves expected the federal government to give them some land as compensation for all the work they had done during the slavery era.[1]  “40 acres and a mule,” became the expectation.  In early 1865, Union General William T. Sherman granted some freed men 40 acres each of the abandoned land left in the wake of his army.  They also gave some freed men mules no longer needed by the Army.  No doubt this action encouraged the expectation of government intervention.

The compensation was far from universal.  “In 1870, only around 30,000 African Americans in the South owned land (usually small plots), compared with 4 million others who did not.”[2]  Some of those without land worked as laborers.  Others became sharecroppers.

Under sharecropping, a poor family would rent a small plot from a landowner, with the promise of paying the rent by means of a share of the crops when they came in.  “In many cases, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters, and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season.  At that time, the tenant and landlord or merchant would settle up, figuring out who owed whom and how much.

“High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over until the next year or the next.  Laws favoring landowners made it difficult or even illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to others besides their landlord, or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord.

Freed African-Americans were not the only poor to suffer under sharecropping.  “Approximately two-thirds of all sharecroppers were white, and one third were black.”[3]

Sharecropping in the United States falls under the category of “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  We encounter essentially the same system at work in the parable from today’s Gospel lesson.  In the story Jesus tells, a landowner plants a vineyard, builds a fence around it, adds a winepress and a watchtower, and leases it out to some sharecroppers.  And like a good absentee landlord, he disappears.

At harvest time, he sends his slaves to collect his share of the crop.  But the sharecroppers don’t want to pay.  So they beat one slave, kill another, and stone a third.  The landlord, tries again, and the next group of his slaves are treated the same way.  “They’ll respect my son,” the landlord says, and he sends his son to collect the rent.  The sharecroppers hatch a plot:  “Let’s kill off the son, the landlord’s heir, and then we’ll get his inheritance when the landlord dies.”  And so, they do.

Now I come from good Pilgrim and Puritan stock on my father’s side and good Swiss Reformed stock on my mother’s side.  I hear this story and I get a bit apoplectic.  “They what?!  They kill the slaves and then they kill the son?!”  And I’m right there with the chief priests and elders (to whom Matthew says Jesus is telling the story).  That landlord should throw those wretches out of the vineyard, have them thrown into jail, and find some respectful tenants.

And I can’t help but wonder how a newly freed African American who was now living as a sharecropper, living as a slave by another name, would have heard the story.  Might she have thought, “Damn right, kill the son.  This should be my 40 acres, and it should have come with a mule, too”?

Now, this parable is usually interpreted as an allegory.  The vineyard is a symbol of Israel, the landlord is God, the slaves are the prophets, and the son is Jesus.  And so the story culminates with God’s judgment on Israel for killing God’s son and the subsequent replacement of Israel by more suitable tenants, that is the gentile church.[4]

But we should beware of allegorizing this or any parable.  First of all, in this case, such a reading is very self-serving.  Not only that, it leads to anti-Semitism.  And allegorical readings of any parable tend to obscure the dynamics of the story itself.

It’s helpful to know your Hebrew Scriptures with this parable.  In chapter 5 of Isaiah we run into a vineyard, and it is a symbol for Israel.  There’s a problem in the vineyard, but it’s with the plants, not the farmers.  Domestic grapes were planted, but wild grapes are growing.  The problem, if you keep reading, is that exploitation has led to the bloodshed, symbolized by the wild grapes, instead of justice, symbolized by the domestic grapes.  All the world of preparing the vineyard are for naught, which leads the beloved (the one who established the vineyard) to remove the vineyard’s protections and allow it to be trampled, wasted, and abandoned.  The whole vineyard (Israel) suffers destruction for its failure to produce the fruit of justice.[5]

Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, recalling Isaiah’s vineyard, a vineyard that called people to justice.  The big difference is that in Jesus’ parable, the problem isn’t that the vineyard fails to produce fruit; it’s that the fruit that is produced isn’t given to the legal owner.  It is in that difference that Jesus describes the violent economic realities of his day.

You can’t even use a pyramid to diagram economic power in Jesus’ day – it has much too wide a middle.  Maybe something like a bud vase, something with a wide bottom and a long narrow neck.  Caesar was at the top of the neck, and under him where other elites, each one client to the one above and patron to the one below.  It’s a very narrow neck until you get to the base, and there you have the craftspeople, peasants, and slaves.  Sharecropping is just an example of how oppression was an important part of making the economic system work.

Jesus invites the chief priests and the elders to render a verdict of what the landlord should do after the tenants have killed his son.  The judgment they offer clarifies which characters they align themselves with.  The same could be said about the judgment I offer or you offer or my hypothetical freed slave offers.

I’m not surprised by the judgment offered by the religious elites.  “The chief priests and elders were themselves the wealthy landowners in first-century Judah, the beneficiaries of imperial economics and politics who used their power in the temple system to deprive subsistence farmers of their land.  So they identify with the landowner, not the tenants.  … Jesus asks them what they would do if they found themselves in the circumstances the parable describes, and they answer without hesitation: ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

“The parable is thus not just a lens on the economic realities of the day but also a mirror for the chief priests.”[6]

“What will the landlord do when he comes?” Jesus asks the chief priests.  We know how they answer Jesus.  But the question invites us to consider, too, “What will the landlord do?”

David Lose says that everybody in this story is pretty crazy.  First of all, there are the tenants.  Do they really think that killing the slaves will help them?  And what sort of harebrained scheme is killing the son?  “Why on earth do these guys think that they’re going to inherit the vineyard?  Oh, I know, it’s a legal possibility.  But it’s not like that landlord has disappeared.  He’s sent servants, and more servants, and then his son.  Who’s to say he doesn’t have another son, or more servants, or an army, or at least a gang of thugs at his disposal to take care of these tenants.  They’re crazy.”[7]

But then, so is the landlord.  “First he sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed.  Then he sends more – not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants – and the same thing happens again.  So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans?  It’s absolutely crazy.  Who would do such a thing?  No one … except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them.  This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman.  It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.”[8]

“When the parable is read as an allegory of God’s judgment against Israel, an implicit assumption is made that God would think and act like the Jewish elites.  This interpretation presumes that, in the end, God is more like the Jewish elites than like the agent of healing, redemption, and mercy that Jesus has been describing during his ministry.  Are the Jewish elites right about who God is?”[9]  I don’t think so.  This sure isn’t the God whom Jesus has shown me in his life and ministry.  So, what will the landlord do?

Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”  Then he says that this rejected stone will break open those who fall on it.  That’s what God’s love does sometimes.  When we fall onto it, or into it, it breaks us open.  And that can be threatening.  Because when we’re broken open by the love of God, we end up seeing the poor the way God sees them, and we end up seeing our enemies the way God sees them, and we end up with a passion for justice and mercy and forgiveness that’s like God’s.[10]

He’s what I think the landlord will do … or more accurately, what he did:  He sent a guy named Jesus, the one we call “God’s son,” to remind us of all the blessings God has given and how we should not hoard them for ourselves.  And we killed him.  So God raised him from the dead and sent him back to us, still bearing the message of God’s desperate, crazy love.

And what happens next?  That’s kind of up to the tenants.  That’s kind of up to you and me.


[1] “Sharecropping,” History, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sharecropping (accessed 2 October 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “SLAVERY by Another Name,” Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/sharecropping/ (accessed 2 October 2014).

[4] Stan Saunders, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 1 October 2014, p. 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 17A – Crazy Love,” … In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-17a-crazy-love/ (posted 28 September 2014; accessed 29 September 2014).

[8] Ibid. [I did correct a typo:  “Who would do such a think?” became “Who would do such a thing?”]

[9] Saunders, op. cit.

[10] Shelley Douglass, “Seeing Ourselves,” Sojourners, http/sojo.net/preaching-the-word/seeing-ourselves (accessed 30 September 2014).