God’s Vineyard Bible Study
Word Study: Covet
Selfishness is the parent of all sins. Our English word “covet” comes from a Greek word meaning "grasping for more." Dictionaries define “covet” as "grasping, greedy, greed of wealth with a view of hoarding it." Covetousness springs from a selfish nature. Because a man is selfish, he covets. Because he covets he steals, lies, commits adultery, murders, disregards others. Jesus said, "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consist not in the abundance of the things which he possesses" (Luke 12:15).
We are like our mother Eve, when she lived in
The violence covered by ritual, or law. Human Sacrifice, animal sacrifice, death penalty, war. The death of Christ was an example of what is meant by this. The High Priest said is it not better for one man to die than for all to perish.
The vineyard is an image of culture, not
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. (Is. 5:1-2)
The people of
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
16She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
31Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
The vineyard, then, was not merely a figurative image for how the people were to relate to God. It was a place where some people acted out their relationship with God. The Old Testament Law includes some specific commandments on how the care of a vineyard was to embody God's care for all people. There is a touching piece of legislation to the effect that a man who has planted a vineyard but not yet had the opportunity to reap its fruit, should be excused from battle and allowed to return home. (Deut. 20:6)
Other commandments, however, make it clear that the vineyard may not be treated as an airtight possession. The vineyard is not tended only for the benefit of its owner but for all people. Lev. 19: 10 states that any fallen grapes should not be picked up but left for the poor to come and pick them up.
10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
Deut. 24: 21 legislates in the same way.
21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
The prophet Zechariah offers a deeper admonition that one's care of a vineyard be the basis of caring for others by prophesying that: (Zech. 3:10)
10On that day, says the LORD of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.’
In his song of the vineyard, Isaiah goes on to say that, in spite of God's care for the vineyard: "he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes." (Is. 5:2)
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
At is best, the yield of wild grapes is caused by sheer laziness rather than maliciousness, as Proverbs has it: "I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down." (Prov. 24: 30)
Unfortunately, the dilapidated state of a vineyard often has more sinister origins that come from the heart of the social structure. Jeremiah complains that:
Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,
they have trampled down my portion,
they have made my pleasant portion
a desolate wilderness. (Jer. 12: 10)
Likewise, when Isaiah goes on to denounce the "wild grapes," he spells out the wildness in terms of society-wide covetousness. God "expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!" (Is. 5: 7-8) Job also makes the same complaints of social injustice through the treatment of workers in the vineyard. The poor are forced to glean in the fields of scoundrels, while they themselves lacked clothes and were starving as they carried their sheaves. (Job 24: 6-10)
A sidelight, in the literal sense of a light off to the side, is offered by the example of the Rechabites. Jeremiah is instructed to invite members of this clan to an apartment in the temple and offer them wine. They refuse on the grounds that they have been ordered by their ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab, not only to drink no wine but to eschew ownership of any vineyard or field that can be sown. (Jer. 35: 1-11)
The word that came to Jeremiah from the
LORD in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: 2Go to the house of the Rechabites, and
speak with them, and bring them to the house of the LORD, into one of the
chambers; then offer them wine to drink. 3So I took Jaazaniah son of Jeremiah son of
Habazziniah, and his brothers, and all his sons, and the whole house of the
Rechabites. 4I brought them to the house of the LORD
into the chamber of the sons of Hanan son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was
near the chamber of the officials, above the chamber of Maaseiah son of Shallum,
keeper of the threshold. 5Then I set before the Rechabites pitchers
full of wine, and cups; and I said to them, ‘Have some wine.’ 6But they answered, ‘We will drink no wine,
for our ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab commanded us, “You shall never drink
wine, neither you nor your children; 7nor shall you ever build a house, or sow
seed; nor shall you plant a vineyard, or even own one; but you shall live in
tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you reside.”
8We have obeyed the charge of our ancestor
Jonadab son of Rechab in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our
days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, and our daughters, 9and not to build houses to live in. We
have no vineyard or field or seed; 10but we have lived in tents, and have
obeyed and done all that our ancestor Jonadab commanded us. 11But when King Nebuchadrezzar of
That is to say, the Rechabites have withdrawn from the unjust society in which vineyards become objects of contention and oppression. Jeremiah goes on to proclaim the word of the Lord to the effect that the members of this clan obey a very strict set of regulations while the rest of Israel refuses to obey the much more modest commands issued to them by God. (Jer. 35: 12-17)
12 Then the word of the LORD came to
Jeremiah: 13Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of
Israel: Go and say to the people of
One can argue that the Rechabites have not
done much to solve the systemic injustice in
The story of Naboth's vineyard is the culmination of human greed overcoming gratitude for the gifts given by God that should, in turn, be handed on to others. (1 Kings 21: 1-16)
Later the following events took place:
Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the
5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said,
‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him,
“Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you
another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my
vineyard.” ’ 7His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’
15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
The only reason given for King Ahab's desire to possess Naboth's vineyard is that it is next to his own property. That is, it is across his boundary line. He is among those denounced in the oracle of Isaiah who wishes to "join house to house, [an] add field to field." That Naboth really cares about this vineyard because it is an ancestral inheritance seems only to fuel Ahab's desire for it. It is otherwise hard to imagine a king taking to his bed in a huge pout over the intrinsic value of one vineyard. Jezebel berates his husband for his behavior. She is not taking him to task for desiring somebody else's vineyard, of course. She is berating him for not asserting his kingship by taking it. Jezebel takes matters into her own hands. She demonstrates that she understands the dynamics of coveting all too well. The coveting on Ahab's part has the potential to lead to violence. The same goes for the coveting on the part of the people who live in Naboth's town. She assumes, rightly, that there are people sufficiently subject to envy that if Naboth is conspicuously placed in a prominent position, these people will make false accusations in order to get rid of him. Jezebel also realizes that the occasion for the false charges and the subsequent killing need to be done in a sacred context, so she advises her plotters to proclaim a fast and then appoint Naboth a leader. When the accusations are made, all the tension from the coveting focuses on Naboth and all the people in the town stone him. With the result that Ahab acquires the vineyard. Ahab, of course, is denounced by the prophet Elijah for what he has done. Ahab then repents and God accepts the repentance.
When Jesus uses the vineyard as the central image of some of his parables, he is using an image which has accumulated much weight in the tradition of his people. He can hardly begin a parable by saying: "There was a vineyard" without people thinking of the Torah legislation and of the way the prophets used it to bring home the word of God. Not only that, but some of Jesus' listeners would have been the owners of vineyards or workers in them. For them, the vineyard was not just an illustrative symbol but a reality around which their social tensions actually revolved.
All three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark
and Luke) include the parable of the evil workers in the vineyard. Not only
that, but they all place the parable in a prominent
place, soon before the arrest of Jesus, so that the parable presages the
violence inflicted on Jesus Himself. Matthew, however, includes another parable
about a vineyard. Its placing gives it, too, the same degree of emphasis. The
first of the two parables, the parable of the laborers hired for the day, comes
right after the story of the rich young man who is asked to follow Jesus but
turns him down because his possessions are many. That is, a story and its
accompanying logions about riches are added to the traditional associations of
vineyards and human acquisitiveness. This is also the last parable in Matthew
before Jesus' entry into
The Parable of the Vineyard Laborers (Mat. 20:1-16) is easy to understand.
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,* he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.* 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.* 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?* 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”* 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’*
One should be grateful for the opportunity to work for a livelihood and not be envious over what others receive. The catch is that it is easy to understand why the workers who toiled all day feel the way they do and it is hard to understand why the owner of the vineyard acts the way he does. For people who either hired workers for their vineyards or who worked in them, the vineyard was not merely a symbol of a spiritual truth. The landowners were trying to make as large a profit on their vineyards as they could and the workers were at the mercy of the landowners who hired only as many as is profitable. That an owner might return to the market place in the middle of the day to look for more laborers makes some sense if the harvest is going really well. To take time to hire workers for just the last hour of the day seems hardly worth the trouble as far as increasing the yield of the harvest is concerned. To pay a full day's wage even to those who were brought in at the last hour is sheer madness. How could the owner justify such a thing to his shareholders in the corporation?
Jesus here is very radical. In this parable, Jesus has driven a wedge into the human heart that feeds on envy that, in turn, feeds a social system that requires the exploitation of people in order to run efficiently. The economic practices expected of an owner of a vineyard are exploded by a totally irrational generosity. It becomes clear that for this owner, maximizing profit is not a high priority. The only things that seem to matter are employing as many people as possible and giving everybody who works wages that offer a livelihood.
One might be tempted to say that the workers should be aware only of what they receive from the owner and not worry about what others receive. But the owner pays out the wages in such a way that those who worked all day can't help but know what the last workers received. The owner could easily have paid the workers hired at the beginning of the day first and sent them off so that they would be none the wiser about how he paid those who began work late in the day. This tactic could have saved a lot of social tension. But the owner is not content with being generous in this secret way. Rather, he challenges the first workers to share in his generous perspective. He purposely makes sure they know how he pays the last workers so that they have to make a decision as to whether or not they will rejoice in the good fortune of those workers who were hired at the end of the day, or if they will be discontented because they did not receive more. Only if they receive the same wage as the latecomers and know that this is the case, do they have the opportunity to participate in the owner's generosity to the workers. These workers do nothing of the kind. Of course, if these workers had received more than the agreed-on daily wage, they would have been happy with the owner's generosity. On the other hand, if those hired only for the last hour had received only a small fraction of a day's wage, then the first workers would have been more than happy with the normal daily wage. Again, what matters to the workers who put in the full day's work is, not that they receive a large amount of money, but that they receive more than the other workers. Economically, the owner's odd style of payment has not hurt those workers who worked all day and received a full day's wage. It is the owner who has made the sacrifice of his own economic substance. All that the first workers have lost is the satisfaction of receiving more than others.
One would like to think that the Parable
of the Vineyard Laborers just pokes a little fun at human acquisitiveness and
then go on our way. If we go on the way of reading Matthew's Gospel, however, we
journey through Jesus' entry into
33 ‘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 watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘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.’ 42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;* this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.* 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’* 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
These two parables dealing with a vineyard
and its workers' relationship with the owner, then, form a chiasmus with the
The Parable of the Wicked Vineyard Laborers shows us how Old Testament allusions are particularly noticeable as the parable opens with a description of the owner's careful planting of the vineyard that clearly refers back to the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5. This time, the workers do not grumble about payment. It seems not to matter how little or how much the workers are paid. They want the vineyard for themselves and no amount of wages will suffice to quench that desire. Like King Ahab, they feel they have to have the vineyard for themselves simply because they do not have it. In the first parable, the owner gave of his own economic substance in order to be generous to his workers. In this second, darker, parable, the owner spends his own substance literally by sending his own son, his own flesh and blood. Here, the owner has made a tragic miscalculation in believing that the workers will respect his son. What the workers want is, of course, the very substance of the owner. It is precisely because he sends his son, his substance, that the workers realize that they have the opportunity to take the vineyard for themselves. If one is not willing to affirm God's generosity, then one will take it from God Himself. Not surprisingly, the chief priests and scribes were offended by this parable. These priests and scribes prove Jesus' point by wanting to arrest him. They only hold off from doing so because they have not yet drawn the crowds over to their side. Like Jezebel plotting the death of Naboth, they realize they had to do just that.
The parables just looked at deal with the workers in the vineyard and they invite us to put ourselves in their places and see ourselves mirrored in their attitudes. In much of the Old Testament, however, the image of the vineyard itself is used as a metaphor for the people. That is, we are to imagine ourselves being the vineyard. We are the vineyard planted by God in Isaiah's song and we have the choice as to whether or not we will grow properly, which requires the discipline of being pruned and shaped by the owner of the vineyard, or we can choose to grow wild and yield wild grapes. Since we have, indeed, chosen the latter course, Jesus invites us, once again, to be the vineyard. The invitation is issued to us at the Last Supper.
Jesus was not just passing a cup of wine around the table. The disciples had recently heard these two parables about workers in a vineyard. And, of course, the Old Testament use of the image would be weighing on them as well. Now, Jesus is passing around the fruit produced by the laborers who grumbled, not over their own wages, but over the wages of others. Moreover, Jesus was passing round the fruit of the laborers who ganged up on the vineyard owner's son. The disciples are asked to drink the fruit of these murderers. And they do. And they are told to continue to drink this fruit produced by murderers in memory of their master. By drinking the wine, the disciples receive the substance of the fruit of the vine. What was once a grape has become part of the body of the person who drinks the wine. When we drink this wine in memory of Jesus, we also become the fruit produced by murderers.
Jesus said: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (Jn. 15:5-8). While historically mankind seeks to take God’s substance, Jesus responds by offering us God's substance as a gift. He also warns us that there is no other way in which we can have God's substance. We are called to work in God's vineyard. But it is not enough to be a laborer in the vineyard. We are also called to be the vines nourished by the True Vine. Everybody receives the same nourishment from the vine of which we are branches. That means we must wish for all other branches to be nourished as much as the True Vine wishes it. The vineyard of the Lord will not be complete all are welcomed back into our shared inheritance.