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October 5, 2014 - Matthew 21.33-46

“Wicked Tenants”

Matthew 21.33-46

October 5, 2014

 

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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.”

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’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The 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. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

 

In the parable of the wicked tenants, we see something of the lengths to which God will go for us, the lengths to which our sin will resist the rightful claims of God. The story continues of God's divine reaching out toward a rebellious humanity.

"A man planted a vineyard and gave it out to farmers and left home. When the time came, he sent a servant to the farmers to get from them some fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and killed him."

On the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem, he began telling stories. They are stories of the cross, stories of judgment. In the Bible, stories about vineyards are usually stories about judgment. But even if you didn't know that, you know this one is about judgment because it is about accounting. It's a day of reckoning when the accounts will be settled.

A man plants a vineyard. He expends much effort in the building of this vineyard with hedges, a fine winepress right there on site, and a watch tower. Then he leases the vineyard to some people and leaves. The absentee landlord leaves his vineyard in the hands of others, leaving them in charge until the day of reckoning.

That day comes when the absentee owner sends some of his servants to go collect the rent. Thus far in the story, I expect that our sympathy is with the renters. The landlord is probably rich, probably powerful, probably living in Palm Beach, clipping his coupons. The renters are good, basic, simple working people - people like us. We are always on the side of the "little guy" because that's the way we enjoy thinking of ourselves.

Our sympathy for the renters is a setup for the first jolt in the story. When the master's servants appear, seeking the master's rightly owed rent, the renters beat them, kill one of them and send them packing without the rent.

The renters have broken the contract. In abusing the servant, they have abused the master. Having been thus insulted on two counts, what will he do? Not only his income but his honor is at stake. If he allows such behavior to go unchallenged, this will be the last rent paid in Galilee. What will he do?

He sends some more servants. And they do the same to them as the others. At this point we assume that the master must be some kind of fool. The first rejection ought to have demanded vengeance, maintenance of honor. Now, he's sent a second group of servants and they have beaten them.

So what does this powerful, rich master do? Now he sends his son to them.

"Harold, you go down to my vineyard and see if you fare any better than the first two bunch of servants."

What kind of master is this? He already has ample proof that these renters are a violent, low breed of people. Look how they have repeatedly, over a long period of time, treated his servants. Now he is going to expose his own son to such peril? It makes one wonder about the master.

And the renters say, "This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and the inheritance of the vineyard will be ours." And they took him and they killed him.

The master has no rent, no honor, no servants, now, no son.

We are not surprised by this act of violence of the tenants; we have come to expect it of them. If they cared so little for the master as to beat and kill his servants, why would they not kill his son?

What is surprising is the tenants' assumption that, by killing the son, they could inherit the vineyard. Why would they believe that? What claim have they on the property? Why would they think that by their own violent stratagems they could take the vineyard?

Do you hear, in the tenants' words, "Come, let us kill him, and get his inheritance," an echo of an older story, deep in Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers, "Come, now, let us kill him" (Gen 37:20). That was also a story of inheritance, a story of who would get the goods of the father at the end.

Or maybe you hear an echo of another story from Genesis: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens" (Gen 11:4). We so want to take heaven by force, to secure for ourselves a future, a place at God's right hand.

At any rate, the master now has no rent, no honor, no servants, no son, no vineyard. The vineyard is in the hands of the cruel and the shameless. Look who has the inheritance.

The master's departure was supposed to be a test for the tenants, but they have subverted the story into a test of the master. At first, perhaps we were on the side of the renters against the master. However, that was before we knew what sort of people they were. Then our sympathy was aroused for the master. After all, he was only seeking what was rightfully his. But by the end of the story, after the beating of two servants and the death of his own son, we are disgusted with the master and frustrated by his apparent inability to see after his own affairs.

If these uppity renters have gotten to thinking that by killing the master's son they will be able to inherit a vineyard, then the master has only himself to blame. He should have stepped on them earlier and brought their violent, unjust ways to a violent end. The master should have stood up for himself and acted like a master.

But he didn't. He just sent one servant after another to be stoned, beaten, and rejected. Then he sent his own son to be stoned, beaten, rejected, killed. What kind of master is this? What kind of story is this? It is a tragedy, with the servants rejected, the son dead, the vineyard's ownership in doubt, the master's response in question, and a bunch of tenants running wild in their violence and stupidity.

Rejection of Jesus and his gospel comes in many different forms. Some reject the ideas put forth by Jesus, others reject the way of life that Jesus walked, and some reject Jesus himself as the Son of God. The hard truth is that the church encounters no objection to or rejection of Jesus in the world that we do not first see in the church. Rather than expend much effort speculating on why many in the world reject Jesus, we should consider some of the ways in which we, having accepted the way of Christ, fail to walk that way.

 

As contemporary Christians we are not to judge the Jews for their inability to follow Jesus. Rather, we ought to remember that down through the ages many Jews have rejected Jesus because we have failed faithfully to follow Jesus.

 

Our job is to locate ourselves in the position of those chief priests and Pharisees who recognized themselves in this parable. Cannot it be said that we have become like those chief priests and Pharisees in thinking that our receiving of the good news puts us in some superior, safe place in regard to Jesus? Ought we not see that in this parable Jesus is doing that which he does throughout Matthew – training us to be disciples? We are not to speculate about just who is “in” and “out” but rather we are to examine all the ways in which we, by our own lives and actions, by our behavior to others, “reject” Jesus today.

 

In what ways do we, like those wicked tenants, pervert the gift of God’s good news into our selfish possession? We ought to remind ourselves that we Christians are receivers of the gospel, not its owners. I think I am talking about something that happens to us here on Sunday morning from time to time. We show up at church, thinking that we understand the gospel, that we have “got it,” only to discover, in the reading of scripture, or maybe even in listening to the sermon, that the gospel word is something we must repeatedly, continually receive. Here in church, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the gospel eludes our grasp, reminds us that it is not our possession, but is rather God’s gift to us.

 

Maybe it’s important for us Christians continually to remind ourselves that none of us is a Christian by inheritance, by natural birthright, or by natural inclination. We are all receivers of this gospel. We’re all amateurs, recipients of a faith we did not think up by ourselves. There is something about us that too easily slips into the false faith that we are the owners of salvation in Jesus Christ rather than the recipients of that salvation.

It’s good for us to remind ourselves that we Gentiles are the Johnny-come-latelies to faith in Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Israel, not to us. And yet, behind every word of Matthew’s Gospel is the stunning surprise that in an incredibly gracious act, God has extended the promises of Israel to those of us who are not part of Israel. How perverted of us to take those promises to which we have no right and act as if they are our exclusive possession.

Earlier Jesus said, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force" (Mt 11:12). Violence has always been a part of God's vineyard. The master looks so weak and powerless, the tenants are thieves and hoods, the messengers are beaten or murdered. The story ends with the fate of the vineyard unresolved. Who shall inherit? The master is still alive, yes, but so are the violent tenants. What will be the end of the story?

The story ends. The fate of the vineyard is yet unresolved.

The killings continue. Servants are still sent out to contest the inheritance with the violent and the unjust. However, we know what the final fate will be. We know how the story will end.   This is our assurance as Christians.

Yet we do know this: According to the story, according to our own experience of this affair, the master is unwilling to let the vineyard go; that great suffering has always been involved in the way this master does business. And with the final act of killing the son, we know the high cost of doing business in this vineyard, and we know...the master is willing to pay the price.