This morning’s parable continues where we left off last week. Those that were here last Sunday will remember that Jesus is in his final days in Matthew’s gospel. He has entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, he has flipped the tables of the money changers, and he has been engaged in verbal conflict with the religious establishment. Last Sunday they questioned Jesus’ authority to be preaching, teaching, and generally causing mayhem. He replied with a parable questioning their authority reminding the religious leaders that it is not what you say that matters; rather it is how you actually live your life. Jesus immediately follows that parable with this one.
I see three levels of interpretation in this parable today. The first is what I will consider the surface level of this text. This parable is an allegory, and Jesus is using it to condemn the religious leaders of his time, and even times before. The landowner at the center of the parable is God, and the tenants are the religious establishment. God has created the world, like a vineyard, and has asked the tenants, or the church, to help look after the place.
Over and over God sends messengers to collect a harvest from the tenants and over and over again these messengers are rejected and even beaten. In Jesus’ parable, these messengers are meant to be the prophets. Throughout the Old Testament God sent prophets calling the people back to God’s ways. But the people and the religious establishment repeatedly rejected these messengers from God, often killing them violently.
I am sure you can imagine where Jesus is going towards the end of the parable when finally the vineyard owner sends his very son to try to convince the wicked tenants to reform their ways. This of course, is Jesus himself. The writer of Matthew’s gospel then has Jesus foreshadow his own death by declaring that even this son will be killed.
In the story that Jesus is telling, he asks what should be done with these wicked tenants. The religious leaders condemn the wicked tenants and in turn condemn themselves. They declare that these tenants should be killed and that new tenants should be found. Jesus once again has gained the upper hand as they begin to realize he is speaking about them and their religious authority.
That is what I consider the surface reading of this parable; that is what Jesus is talking about in his context. But, if we expand the frame a bit, we can begin to apply the parable to our own lives. One way to look at this is as if the vineyard is the church and the tenants are the religious leaders and church authorities of today. When we do this, we have to ask ourselves if the modern church have been good tenants or wicked tenants.
How have we welcomed folks who bring the message of God into our midst? Are we harvesting a good crop for the Lord? Have we been responsible with the resources of the vineyard that the Lord has entrusted to our care? A scripture reading like this asks the church to take into account every aspect of its life. Are the sermons true to the message of Jesus Christ? Is the welcome of strangers genuine or strained? And how does the church’s budget reflect the values that Jesus encourages us to hold?
The religious authorities in Jesus’ day missed the mark. They had become people of the world, and had lost their ability to hear and recognize the word of God within their midst. We too are in danger of such a fate. And as Jesus warns, it is possible that God will remove us from our position as tenants, and install someone else who will better follow the will of God in our place. This parable calls the church to some pretty serious self-reflection.
A third way to read this parable is to expand the frame even further. Beyond Jesus and his conflict with the temple, beyond the church and its responsibilities in the world, we can expand the frame to the whole of humanity. The vineyard is the whole world created by God and the tenants are all of us together, who are asked to care for creation and for our neighbors. Throughout history God has sent messengers to God’s people, requesting a harvest of love, and throughout history, the people have rejected these messengers.
When we look at things on this grand scale we are all condemned. As tenants, the Lord placed us in creation to care for this planet. And like wicked tenants we have soiled our very home in our continued desire to make money off the resources of the earth. Like wicked tenants, we threaten death to the very vineyard we have been hired to care for.
As tenants, the Lord placed us on this planet to love and care for each other. Like wicked tenants, we have not produced a harvest of peace; rather we have produced a harvest of death and destruction. From our continued war mongering between nations, to our inability to break down the barriers of racism and sexism we have been like wicked tenants. When over 500 people are shot and we still cannot have a conversation about gun laws, we must admit that we are like wicked tenants in the Lord’s vineyard. We do not value the life of this planet or the lives of the people of this planet as we are called to.
In the parable that Jesus tells, God reaches out to the wicked tenants over and over again, attempting to get them to pay attention and reform their ways. I believe that God continues to reach out to us as well. There are always opportunities to act for justice, there are always opportunities to harvest righteousness and peace, and there are always opportunities to once again welcome the son into the vineyard.
Jesus points out to the religious authorities of his day that what trips them up is the foundation stone. Jesus compares himself, his model of love and self-sacrifice to the very stone that holds a building together, the cornerstone. When the religious authorities and the people of the world reject Jesus and his message, they reject the very foundation of the building. Without Jesus the building will not hold, without Jesus the foundation will fail, without Jesus we simply cannot stand.
And yet Jesus is the very one that trips us up. Like stubbing our toe on a rock, Jesus comes to us in unexpected and painful ways. We get tripped up, when someone makes us nervous and we aren’t able to show the welcome we know we should. We get tripped up when we try to call someone on a racist statement, but then end up in an argument instead. We get tripped up when we mention putting some restrictions on gun purchases in this country, and suddenly we are in a place of all guns or no guns. We get tripped up when we try to do the right thing, but it is so hard to stick your neck out there, and so we just sit back and be quiet instead. We want to be good people and to do the right thing, but we get tripped up in the mess of our world, and so sometimes it’s easier to do nothing at all, and in doing so, we are like wicked tenants.
In the story that Matthew is telling, the chief priests realize that they are the wicked tenants. That realization makes them angry and afraid. I think it can make us angry and afraid too. In the story that Matthew is telling, the wicked tenants don’t reform their ways. They are worried about the crowds but they are determined to shut Jesus up. And so they begin to plot his demise. They will live fully into the wicked tenant parable, by devising a strategy to get the crowds to support the murder of Jesus. These wicked tenants are wicked to the end.
We, on the other hand, are not the wicked tenants in Matthew’s gospel. We still have a chance to work toward a proper harvest of justice and peace. When the messengers of God come our way, we can continue to strive to welcome them with love. When the spirit of Jesus calls us to stand up for what is right, to protect the dignity of all people of creation, then we have that chance to stand up. We still have the chance to stand on the foundation stone and act in ways of faith and love in our world, even if it is scary and difficult. And through God’s wondrous grace, we have the chance to be forgiven for all the times we may have messed up, all the times we got tripped up, and all the times we didn’t act the way we knew we should have.
This week, as you go out into the world, I want to challenge you to consider yourself as a tenant. God has created this good world for us to live in. God has placed us here to care for creation and for each other. God has told us through the scriptures, through the life of Jesus Christ, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, what is good. We know what that foundation stone is and we can stand on it in strength together. This week, survey the vineyard you live in, and consider the messengers God sends your way. What kind of tenant will you be when the time of harvest comes? Amen.