JoAnn A. Post
One of the things I missed most about the Midwest while we sojourned in New England was October. Of course, they have October in New England, “Leaf Peeping Season” they call it, but not the October we have here. Growing up on an Iowa farm, October meant falling asleep under a pumpkin moon so heavy it could barely heave itself above the leafless tree tops, lulled by the hum of corn dryers. The flickering lights of combines lumbering up and down the fields after dark. A fine coating of dust on every surface, and in every lung. Mostly I remember a sense of purpose—a year’s worth of planting and planning, worrying and repairing, figuring and fearing was finally paying off. Nobody complains about the long hours or hard work of harvest. My oldest brother, who now farms the family farm, told me once, “October is the whole reason I farm.”
Today, God is that farmer, that planter, that worrier. But God doesn’t drop corn and soybeans in the ground. God tends vines. Ancient, stout, wandering vines. Heavy-with-grapes vines, thick-as-your-arm vines, feed-the-family vines. It’s hard work tending a vineyard, hauling in the harvest, turning fruit to wine for drinking and security for the family. But, like a haven’t-slept-in-days-but-still-smiling Iowa farmer, God doesn’t mind the hard work. God is doing what God loves to do. Growing. Providing. Nurturing. It’s always October for Our Farmer Who Art in Heaven.
And what is it that we do? We are tenants, workers in the field, honorable and grateful servants. Better even than being a tenant though, to be God’s grape, carefully tended, wisely pruned, essential for life. If you were God’s grape, wouldn’t you leap into the harvester’s basket, squeeze yourself against brother and sister grapes, pour yourself into the waiting vats? You’d think so. Isn’t that what grapes are for? Isn’t that how the story ought to end? Weary workers and stomped grapes and bulging vats?
Ah, the metaphor. My favorite biblical device. A literary sneak attack, preying on the unexamined and unaware. Jesus’ hearers nodded along with his story. They knew vineyards. They knew landowners like the one Jesus described—wise people who poured heart and soul and cash into the ground. Planting crops, building fences and watch towers, digging a wine press, leasing to tenants. It was an unremarkable story Jesus told. But his tale suddenly took a dark turn, a turn as dark and scheming as the one his hearers secretly plotted for him.
Jesus continued spinning the story, describing the tenants of the wise landowner as wicked, selfish, grasping people. Clueless about all the landowner had done for them. They were ungrateful and small. Over the course of weeks and months, as they begrudgingly pruned and weeded and plucked, they forgot to whom the vineyard belonged. They forgot they were tenants. They forgot they had been called there to work. For someone else. That is why, when harvest time came, they killed the truck drivers who came to collect the grapes—twice. That is why, when the owner’s only son came to reason with them, they slaughtered him.
No longer grateful tenants, they had talked themselves into believing all that abundance and wealth not only belonged to them, but was their own doing. “Look what we have done!” they boasted as they hacked their way through the terrified truckers. “Imagine how wealthy we will be,” they howled, as they chased the horrified owner’s son through the vineyards. “Aren’t we smart,” they chortled, as they put all their grapes in one basket, counted their profits before they were aged.
At what point in the story do you suppose Jesus’ hearers—wicked tenants disguised in Pharisee’s clothing—caught on to the conceit? And at what point did they draw back in horror—fearful that Jesus would deal with them as the landlord had dealt with his tenants, as they intended to deal with Jesus himself?
Here’s their horror. If they were the wicked tenants of the story, metaphorically speaking, heads would roll, metaphorically speaking. That is, if God were as small-minded and vengeful as they. But that is not how God rolls. Tenants don’t get what they deserve—not even the wicked ones.
I am now five days on the job as your pastor. So far I have unpacked boxes and moved furniture, forgotten computer passwords and most of your names, idled for hours on the Dan Ryan, and watched you at work.
I like what a see. There is a generous spirit here, easy laughter, a wealth of experience and wisdom, and a deep love for this place. This particular vineyard is filled with hard-working tenants. But I know congregations, and I know how quickly they can turn from vineyards full of grateful servants to fortresses dedicated to self-preservation. Is that a danger here? I don’t know yet.
I’ve been watching the world, too. I fear wicked tenants are taking over God’s vineyards in other places. In the vineyard that is Chicago, we spend millions of dollars in pursuit of personal political gain, ample funds for everything—except for troubled families and education and food and safety. In distant vineyards, evil tenants have taken to sawing off heads to make some kind of twisted point, and soldiers fear for their own lives even as they try to protect others. A virus decimates whole families, shuts down whole countries, and we blame the victims for getting sick. The landowner has been away too long; the tenants have gone to seed; the only harvest we will reap is blood and tears.
But, for God, it is always October. God is still planting and digging postholes, pressing grapes and watching for danger. God is still calling workers to the vineyard because there is still work to be done. And God continues to send the Son, the only Son, the rightful heir to God’s fortune, who chooses to work among us, risking his own life for our sake.
Jesus’ parable is a cautionary tale, a too-close-for-comfort reminder that we are tenants, beholden to and dependent on Another for shelter and sustenance and life itself. We do not create or sustain our own lives; all that we have and all that we are is from God. Even this place—it exists only to extend God’s work in the world, not so that we might grow fat and sassy, smug and self-congratulatory. Friends, this is God’s Garden, not our own.
In God’s Garden there is enough for all.
In God’s Garden everyone has work to do.
In God’s Garden no one is greater or lesser, all are servants.
We have been called to work side-by-side in in this gorgeous garden, this lush vineyard, this ripe field; tenants eager to labor not for our own gain, but for the glory of God and the strengthening of God’s people.
It is October. The harvest is ready. God is hiring. And we have work to do.