Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall,
And daddy will catch you, cradle and all.
It feels like several lifetimes ago, but this was one of the bedtime songs I would sing to our girls. If I remember correctly - and the girls have confirmed this memory - I would hold them up in my arms, Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top. Provide some in-house wind: When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. Add some suspense by rocking them, and then letting go: When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. And offer a peaceful resolution, having just quickly moved my arms down a couple feet, ready to receive what gravity quickly brought into them: And daddy will catch you, cradle and all.
If I also remember correctly, this was a terrible method of calming the girls down for sleep as they would inevitably scream “Again, again” each time.
From a lyrical perspective, you likely notice a change from the traditional lyrics. Not only was the updated version more fun, but it’s less bizarre and, shall we say, less troubling, less violent, than singing When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all. That image is enough to keep an adult up all night.
Adapting and altering familiar stories, songs, language, is something we do all the time. Consider the older, also more violent, endings to some of our familiar fairy tales, and consider how those fairy tales have been further adapted in movies like Shrek, Into the Woods, and Hoodwinked.
This is what Jesus is up to in his telling of today’s parable.
It begins: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” For Jesus’ listeners, this opening was perhaps as familiar as rock-a-bye baby is to us. Jesus is sampling from the prophet Isaiah, who had spun a similar lyric. From Isaiah, chapter 5: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.”
Jesus bases his parable off of an old love song from the recording artist Isaiah. A vineyard was also the site of the great love song of the Song of Songs, where the lover and beloved play. Perhaps an old familiar tune started running through the listeners minds as Jesus speaks. Or maybe, just maybe, Jesus himself starts the parable by singing Isaiah’s song of the vineyard. That’s a long shot, but it’s hard to resist the thought of Jesus singing a love song to everyone within earshot.
But Isaiah was not just a poet and musician, but a prophet. And a prophet’s love song can have a harsh edge. After singing of the lover’s digging, and planting of vines, building of watchtower, and hewing of wine vat, Isaiah sings: “he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” Much of the rest of chapter 5 consists of Isaiah detailing just what he means by wild grapes, like amassing wealth and property at other’s expense: “Ah, you who join house to house, and add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left alone in the midst of the land.” Isaiah also condemns injustice in the courts, violence and bloodshed, excessive wine leading to bad judgement, and those who sing loud songs of praise but ignore the poor and hungry.
The vineyard, which Isaiah specifically identifies as his own people, the house of Israel, the people of Judah, is about to be laid to waste, broken down, and trampled over. At the time, this was the theological explanation for why Israel was defeated in war and sent into exile.
It’s a troubling, violent ending to what begins as a lovely song: When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.
And so, when Jesus takes up this song of the vineyard in parable form, we might be hopeful that he will soften its harsh edges.
But this is not what Jesus does. At least this is not what Matthew says Jesus does. At least not within the confines of this parable. Instead, this vineyard parable plays out just as, if not more, harsh than Isaiah’s.
This makes it one of the most difficult, and Yes, let’s just stick with “troubling,” of Jesus’ parables. There’s plenty for our 21st century ears to be troubled by.
God is portrayed as an absentee landlord, leasing out the land to tenants and going to another country. The landowner has slaves, who go to collect the harvest and instead get beaten and killed by the tenants. This happens to two different groups of slaves. It also happens to the vineyard owner’s son, a pretty clear reference to Jesus himself, after which the landowner comes and destroys those tenants, handing the vineyard to other tenants.
When the chief priests and Pharisees hear this parable they are deeply troubled, and upset, realizing Jesus has spoken it against them, the leaders. Subtle the parable is not. They try to find a way to arrest Jesus, but he’s still protected by the support of the crowds.
But in just a couple days those leaders will have their way. This is one of the last parables Jesus will tell.
One of the ways the church has historically interpreted this parable has added to the trouble. Since Isaiah’s song of the vineyard identifies the vineyard with all of Israel, the church has seen in Jesus’ parable a teaching of how
God’s favor has shifted from the Jews, the wicked tenants, to the other tenants, the church, who now have sole possession of the vineyard. Blaming Jews as a whole as responsible for the death of Jesus, the son of the landowner, is a longstanding form of antisemitism that still lingers, and it has no place in the church.
It's still a difficult parable to have in our Bible. It would be doing the text a disservice to pretend otherwise.
Even as we might wish to challenge this parable, one of the ways the parable might challenge us is in calling on us to examine the relationship between love and anger.
Love, because this is a love song. A love song of Isaiah, a love song of Jesus. In all his life and teaching Jesus sings a sweet love song to his people, to all of humanity about a lush vineyard given as a gift. And what a gift. A vineyard isn’t just for sustenance. It’s for joy. It’s for added zest and pleasure. A vineyard turns earth and air and water into wine. What a miracle. What a responsibility.
We have tasted this gift. We have glimpsed this love. Whether it has come in holding a child, embracing a partner, the laughter of friendship, the fulfillment of having meaningful work to do, awe at the vastness of creation - we have known this goodness, we have been drawn in by the sweetness of this love.
Love, and anger. Before this parable Jesus has just cleared the temple. He is angry with the leaders. He is angry at the abuses, the harm that has been done, the people who have been hurt, the violence that will be directed at him by those in power who truly know not what they do. He is angry because of this great love that has consumed him.
And we are angry. This world, this beautiful world, is overrun with pollution that will haunt future generations. Our top political leaders get away with corruption and lies. Racism and injustice persist. Refugees and immigrants are separated from their families. We are angry because we care, because we love.
How to sing a love song while angry? How to be angry yet still be consumed by love?
To evoke the late John Lewis – how to find ourselves in “good trouble” without being overcome by the trouble we are in.
These are questions this parable challenges us to confront. Questions Jesus walks toward, not away from. There is love, and there is anger in this parable. Jesus’ response within the parable is that when people with power abuse that power and harm others, it’s time to empower others. The power Jesus displays and embodies is one of empowering and blessing those who previously had little power, even entrusting them with the vineyard. In 21st century lingo, we might call this a survivor- centered approach to trauma. In Christian language, it’s known as gospel, good news. And even though it might not initially appear to be good news for the abusive tenants, what a miracle if they could accept the new task of being listeners and learners from those who have found their voice within the vineyard.
And these are very pressing 21st century questions within the church. Three recent examples of abusive leadership: The popular hymn writer David Haas, the founder of L’Arche communities Jean Vanier, the leading Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. When leaders in the church abuse their power, what is a healthy response? How might we understand the relationship between a person and their work/contributions in a way that is survivor centered? How to tend God’s vineyard in love and righteous anger?
This is the final parable in our parable worship series. How very CMC of us to end with more questions than answers. You’re welcome. By the way, the 11am Discussion Group today will be an opportunity to address these questions together.
By way of quick review, and in summary, I believe the overarching message of the parables and the gospel is one of love, grace, and wonder. The vineyard workers from that other vineyard parable who get paid more than expected, the servant who is forgiven the bajillion dollar debt, the mustard seed and priceless treasure, the weeds that are allowed to grow alongside the wheat, the sower who always has more seeds to fling on the ground whether they grow or not – these and the many other parables we didn’t cover ultimately point to Divine grace and it’s many surprises. In other words, if we are that child hanging precariously on the limb, when the bough breaks, when we trip, stumble, and fall, we fall right into the arms of God. Even passages of judgement and anger are part of the broader Divine love song to all of creation, ultimately enabling creation to better reflect the kingdom of God.
The invitation Jesus gives time and again around parables is “let everyone with ears, listen.” I’m guessing he says this multiple times because even if we’ve listened closely, there’s always more to be heard. There is more ground to cultivate, more seeds that might grow, more treasure to be found, more joy to be had in the vineyard.
And, so, as we close, we’ll give that saying of Jesus the final word: Let everyone with ears, continue to listen.