|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|"Parable of the Wicked Tenants"
Through all but three years of my life I have either lived
with my parents in my youth, or I have lived in rented housing, or I
have lived in a parsonage.
Before I became a pastor, this would prompt people to ask me, “John, when are you going to settle down and buy a house?” I’m not altogether sure whether they were more concerned with my settling down or with my becoming a homeowner.
But I’m coming more and more to believe that in this earthly life we don’t truly OWN anything; but rather, that to which we lay claim is merely on lease from the almighty.
We certainly aren’t going to take it with us, and that which outlasts our earthly life will afterward be owned by someone else. But please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to demean or ridicule your possessions. To do so would be to ridicule myself. But I do want to point out that there is a possession which we CAN take with us, that even in this earthly life is more valuable that any other, and that is the love of God. It has a value that is not affected by inflation.
It is totally independent of the Consumer Price Index. And all we need to do is ask for it.
Now, that might sound like an oversimplification, but Jesus tells us a parable in the twenty-first chapter of Matthew that should make us sit up and take notice.
“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. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.”
What I see in this parable, although Jesus doesn’t specifically say so, is a picture of the realm of God. God has set this earth up for us and has, in a sense, gone off and left it. God certainly isn’t nosing around getting in our way. If that were the case, we would probably be behaving much better than we do. But we DO owe God something in return for all this.
In the parable, “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.”
In other words, it’s time to pay the rent. And of course, we understand that there is an accounting in all things. But we find that the tenants are less that friendly, as “the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.”
Now, in this simple little story, I’m sure that this sounds like truly outrageous behavior. And we might even be thinking to ourselves, “how unrealistic.” But think to yourselves in the history of the world of those people who have tried to perform good deeds, to help others, and have been imprisoned, tortured, assassinated, exiled, and at the very least have had their lives made miserable by others. These, I think, are God’s servants.
They’ve been sent for the harvest. But they’ve been beaten, killed, and stoned. To seek the fruits of God’s harvest is to risk the brutality of those whose greed and selfishness would have them keep it all to themselves.
But in our parable, the owner of the vineyard is patient. We learn that “Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.”
And what I think we are seeing here is the patience of God. And we can see it in our own lives. Even when we reject God, when we continue to foul up our lives, God is patient. God continues to send servants, in various forms and manner, sometimes as persons, sometimes as events in our lives. We are, for example, given, in the Hebrew Scriptures, seventeen books identified as works of prophecy, of the major and minor prophets.
And Jesus considered the books of the law and the history to contain elements of prophecy. We are continually given chance after chance to bring forth the fruit of the harvest. God never gives up.
But the turning point of this parable is at hand: “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”
The owner of the vineyard is thinking to himself, I haven’t done enough. Now I need to send someone really important, someone special, someone to whom they will not respond with hostility. And as I see it, Jesus is telling his own story, the story of the incarnation of God almighty in human form. Our God, who, for thousands of years, has not been successful with his prophets, has now decided to send a son to earth. And God is believing, “They will respect my son.”
Not only are we seeing the incredible patience of God, but we are also seeing the ultimate gift, the ultimate sacrifice of God. God is holding back absolutely nothing in achieving the desired ends. God does not cut corners. Can we say the same of our lives as we attempt to bring God’s realm to earth?
But there is a deeper assumption underlying the landlord’s belief that “they will respect my son.” The landlord also believes that the tenants respect him. And if he did not believe that, would he have taken the chance on sending his son?
If we understand the landlord as representing God, can we attribute the same assumption to God? Is God assuming that we trust God? And what will be the implications of the treatment the tenants afford God’s son?
We should probably be asking ourselves, what is this story about? Is it about the tenants? Is it about the vineyard? Is it about all those whom the tenants treat so wickedly? Or is it about the landlord?
So what comes of all this? We learn that “when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance. So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
Now I think there are several things we can glean from this verse. First, I believe that Jesus was prophesying his own crucifixion. But, you might say, he was crucified because he was rejected as the son of God. And that brings up another point.
When Jesus was crucified, the “inheritance” that those who crucified him hoped to gain was the power that Jesus carried with him.
By extinguishing the power, they hoped to attain it themselves; not the power of God, but dominion over the vineyard. And that raises an additional point:
The desire to kill the son of the owner of the vineyard really has nothing to do with the tenants’ attitude toward the son. As with those who crucified Jesus, they DO NOT KNOW the son.
But what they do know is that they want the vineyard, and the son of the owner stands in the way of their taking control of it. In the same way, Jesus stood in the way of earthly forces maintaining their power. Those who crucified Jesus did not know him, but they knew what their greed and selfishness wanted. As we learn in the thirty-fourth verse of the twenty-third chapter of the gospel according to Luke, on the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
There is a slogan used by those who oppose gun control which goes something like this: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” I would modify that. “People don’t kill people; people’s motives kill people.”
In the movie “Splendor in the Grass,” based on the play by William Inge, there is a scene at a formal dance where a woman speaking to a young Jewish boy says, among other things, and rather sarcastically, “Don’t you realize that your kind are not welcome here?” After the young boy departs, the woman’s husband remarks, “Why didn’t you just point a gun to his head and pull the trigger? It would have been less painful.”
Having concluded the parable, Jesus asks his disciples, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
The question is a loaded one, and, in fact, in Mark’s and Luke’s telling of this parable, Jesus immediately answers the question himself. But two things are apparent in this question. First of all, there is no doubt that the owner WILL come.
The question is not “if” but “when.” Second, there is also little doubt that punishment is at hand. The question is no longer, “How will the owner get his fruit?” but has become, “What will he do to the tenants?”
Now, I realize that for a great many people this raises serious doubts. We often wonder to ourselves, if there is a good and gracious God, why is that God not doing something about evil in the world?
And we have doubts about whether punishment for what is to us obviously evil is ever to be forthcoming.
We probably have much the same mind-set of the disciples: “They 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.”
The answer is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. The reason it is incomplete is that the owner is truly responding to two problems. No longer is there a concern only for getting the rent in the form of the harvest of fruit, but there is now also a concern for the loss of the son and what that represents in the absence of respect on the part of the tenants.
And in fact, putting the wretched tenants to a miserable death can do nothing about that failure to respect the landlord and the son; just as punishing those who do evil often does nothing to make them good people.
But Jesus wants his disciples to see more in this parable, as he recalls the twenty-second and twenty-third verses of the one hundred eighteenth psalm, and he says,
“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?’”
Jesus is that stone which was rejected. The builders who rejected the stone were the chief priests and the Pharisees. And the cornerstone was the position that Jesus was to take in the realm of God.
While the telling of this parable was prophetic, it was doubly prophetic in that Jesus was building on the scripture of the Jews, citing directly from the Psalms.
But not only was he using the Psalms, he was also referring to the fifth chapter of Isaiah, the first seven verses of which were known as the song of the vineyard, and that scripture was the very basis of the story of his parable.
Finally, Jesus concludes this teaching when he says, “Therefore 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.”
Some have interpreted this to be a prophesy that God would take away the land from the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. I don’t. Rather, I think that there is a message here for all of us. We are all renters of God’s realm. And the rent isn’t all that much.
And our landlord is extremely patient with late payments. And in fact we can be pretty disgusting in the way we handle those who remind us in the most subtle of ways that the rent is past due.
God will continue to be patient. But when we want to shut the landlord out completely, when we want to take the place of the landlord and have it all to ourselves, and when we demonstrate this by the rejection of the gift and sacrifice of the landlord in coming to terms with us, we remove ourselves from the realm of God.
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