The Passover crowd surrounded him like buzzards. Sometime, selfishly, I wished Jesus would send them all away, and speak only to us as he used to back in Bethany. But of course, he couldn’t do that, not with so many of the curious gathering to hear him.
The parable he told was a short and direct: a man bought a vineyard and left tenants to tend it. When harvest came, he sent servants to collect the fruit. The tenants beat, abused, and even killed the servants. Finally, the owner sent his own son…but the tenants killed him too.
As Jesus told his story, I thought of a different vineyard. No other rabbi will teach women, of course, but there are certain stories they make sure we know: ones where women caused the downfall of men. We all know of Eve and Tamar and Bathsheba. They are cautionary tales.
And none more than Jezebel.
King Ahab found a vineyard he couldn’t have, and like the men in Jesus’ parable, he wanted to take it by force. But Queen Jezebel had a better plan. Invite the owner of the vineyard to a feast, she said, make him feel welcome, seat him in the best place, next to the king, his friend.
And then they betrayed him. Paid false witnesses to speak lies about him. And the crowd dragged him away and stoned him.
Ahab got everything he ever wanted, and for a moment, I wonder if he thought he was happy.
But when he went down to claim the vineyard, the word of the Lord came to him. The prophet Elijah declared that for his treachery, he too would die. Then Ahab regretted his choice…but it was too late.
And Jezebel? We’re not told if she had any regrets. I doubt she ever did.
Like the other boys from well-to-do families, I studied the Scriptures. None fascinated me more than Isaiah. Something about him…a kind of lyricism. He spoke the truth, but he made poems instead of proclamations. He told stories.
That’s what Jesus does. That’s what I’ve done, these past few months. “Did you hear about the time I died and was brought back to life?” I say. And it draws people in, every time. Like this passage from Isaiah:
“My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.”
Everything was there in the parable—do you see it? The vines, the wall, the watchtower. I felt a kind of dread as Jesus spoke of the owner sending messengers, because I knew what would happen to them. I knew who they were.
They were Ezekiel and Nathan and Jeremiah and Micah and every other prophet who brought tidings a stubborn people didn’t want to hear. I saw Elijah in the parable. I saw Isaiah.
I saw myself.
Why would he come into Jerusalem at the time he is both most loved and most hated? Doesn’t he know he’s putting himself and all of his followers into danger, speaking like this?
He never has seemed to care about that.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to me, when Lazarus died.
It’s an outrageous statement, really. But I was too tired from crying to laugh, or to get angry, or even to question him. A moment before, I had thought there was nothing left in me at all, hollowed out by grief.
But then I heard myself replying, “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God.”
And I realized there was something left after all: faith.
Sometimes, after Jesus tells a parable, I look around to find the ones really listening and understanding, not just hearing.
Today, I saw the group of Pharisees on the fringes, their hateful glances shouting what they attempted to hide behind whispers. With joyful crowds all around Jesus, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem, they can’t speak against him—yet.
And then I turned away from our enemies, back to our friends and found there was one face among the disciples that was…different. Most were confused, others indignant, carried away by the injustice of the tenants. But one stood apart, a frown on his face, as if wondering: were the tenants the real villains of the story?
And I thought, “I have found Jezebel and Ahab.”
The crowd was watching, waiting. But instead of telling us the ending of the story, Jesus asked us to supply it. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
And I wanted to say, with Isaiah:
“Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland.”
Something terrible is coming, isn’t it?
Jesus’ parables are rather straightforward when you stop puzzling over the details and ask two simple questions: where is God and where am I?
This time, I knew: God owns the vineyard. And I want to be a branch that bears fruit, a faithful tenant. Whatever comes next, that is something I can be sure of.
But sometimes, when I allow myself to think on it, I do wonder: what is coming next?
“Are you there, my old enemy?” That’s what Ahab said to the prophet in the vineyard. It’s a terrifying thing, calling the one sent from God your enemy. I wonder, has Judas thought of that?
Jesus must know. What did he say? “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
This may be the Lord’s doing, but it is not marvelous in my eyes. No. I am afraid. That’s my old enemy: fear. And there’s no need to ask if it’s there. It always will be…but especially today.
Sometimes, I can still smell the perfume I used for his anointing. “She is preparing me for my burial,” Jesus said, when one of the disciples protested that I had wasted something expensive that could be used for a better purpose.
Judas. It was Judas, who said that, wasn’t it?
“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
The crowd walked away from Jesus’ parable feeling satisfied, because there was justice. The right prevailed. But the passage about the vineyard from Isaiah ends with blood and distress. Which will we see, this Passover?
But he can’t die. Surely not the one who already showed power over death. It isn’t possible.
This can’t be how the story ends.
(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.)