Jesus begins one of His parables this way:
Obviously, there’s a lot more following this introduction. In this first sentence, Jesus gives us the first act of his story: the characters and setting, leading to the “inciting incident”. The fulcrum on which the ensuing story tilts is the act of the vineyard’s owner leaving his possession behind to the care of tenants.
When I read this brief preface not too long ago, I paused at this point. I felt as if I had reached a crossroads. The story could have gone any number of directions from that place, only one of which was the one Jesus would go on to tell. I wanted to explore all those paths. I also felt as if, sparse as it was, there was an entire story there. It’s one I know, one I am living, one we all live one way or another.
I saw myself in that vineyard. As brilliantly terse as that opening is, I was drawn into it, seeing the vineyard as the place I live. The One who planted it did an astonishing job. It’s a fantastical place, filled with natural beauty, danger, mystery, and – for better or worse – characters of every possible variety. It produces fruit of every hue and flavor. All that we need is here in this vineyard.
At times, though, it seems as if the One who designed, built, and set it in motion has gone away to another country. A far country. We are left alone.
It seems as if everyone has a different reaction to this supposed abandonment.
The ones Jesus talks about in the rest of the parable see an opportunity. With the true owner out of the picture, there’s nothing and no one to stop them from improving their own lot. Why be a tenant when one can be an owner? They seize control, keeping the proceeds from the owner’s land for themselves. The stewards become the owners. Denethor, steward of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings, is the archetype of this behavior. To paraphrase the son of the sad steward (in the movie version), “The vineyard has no king. The vineyard needs no king!”
Others take the opportunity to exploit the vineyard for their own purposes. Not caring for the land, its occupants, or its future, they use up its resources long before it has outlived its abundance. These are the shortsighted, the selfish. They live as if the vineyard just appeared on its own, out of nothing, for them and them alone.
There are those who, with the owner away and others with unknown motives in charge, cower in fear. They hide, hoping for their own improbable rescue, but having no influence on the fate of the vineyard or its population. They wish for better days but are unwilling to do whatever it takes to bring about change from the status quo.
But some of us are just tired. We know something is wrong. The vineyard is not as it should be. The fruit isn’t healthy or plentiful. Something is missing, even if we can’t describe who or what that is. We long for the owner’s return, even if we’ve never seen his face.
We slog through our days as best we can, wavering between despair and hope.
Life in the vineyard can be hard. To be there on one’s own, harder still. Hardest of all is waiting for an owner we’ve never seen, whose very existence we sometimes doubt.
So we go about our business. At our best, we’re expectant of the owner’s imminent return. If he tarries, he must have his reasons, but that doesn’t change our role as caretakers of the vineyard. Faithfulness is our watchword because we are dependent on the owner’s faithfulness.
Some of us live in the less than fruitful vineyard of MS Land. In this garden, the Owner seems far away indeed. Yet we’re all in spoiled vineyards. If it’s not MS, it’s hunger, family strife, oppression, addiction. The list is excruciatingly long. We could blame the Owner for staying away so long, but we are responsible. We are the stewards. We as tenants have too often and too long shirked our duty to represent the Owner’s interests here in the vineyard, the interests of caring for the needy, coming alongside the lonely, honoring Him with our obedience.
We wait, but we dare not wait idly. And we don’t wait in vain.