Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Reverend Deacon Katherine G. Dougherty
Sermon Text: 

Proper 22 – Oct 8, 2017

Matthew 21:33-46

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants…or is it?

         Today’s Gospel reading is another parable.  Last week we looked at the parable of The Two Sons who were asked by their father to work in the vineyard, and we talked about how God invites us each and every day to be in relationship with God.  This week’s parable is often called, The Wicked Tenants.  As we heard, a landowner rents out his property to some tenants.  When it was time for harvest, the landowner sent servants to collect “the rent” – a portion of the harvest paid by the tenants for use of the land.  Instead of paying the landowner what was agreed upon, the tenants beat, stoned and killed those whom he sent. 

         What might we expect the landowner to do in response?  Send a large group of men to punish the tenants! Right?  That’s what I was expecting.  What does the landowner do…he sends more of his servants and asks once again for the harvest due.  Maybe this time the tenants will recognize the landowner is giving them another chance.  But no!  As we heard in the parable, the tenants beat, stoned and killed them too.  So, NOW the landowner will come and completely destroy these horrible people who are on his land.  But he doesn’t!  What does he do…he sends his SON!  But that makes no sense.  This story was already odd, and now it’s plain absurd.  Because not only did the landowner send his son to collect the harvest, but the tenants kill him too!  Well, welcome to the land of parables. 

         A key characteristic of parables is that they were stories that included a detail that shocked or surprised the hearer by its strangeness or vividness.  Well, we definitely have the strange-factor going on in our parable today. 

         So what might this parable really be about?  Some believe it is a metaphor about the confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leadership of his day.  Here’s how that would play out…the wicked tenants are the leaders of Jerusalem, the landowner is God, the vineyard is Israel, the servants represent all the prophets God sent before Jesus.  The son…that’s an easy one, that’s Jesus.[1]

         The religious leaders of this time had sworn their loyalty to God, and held great power within their society.  Though they preached about this loyalty, they questioned and fought against the actions of John the Baptist and Jesus.  Even though, as leaders, they were in charge of leading the people of Israel in the way of righteousness, they rebelled against God and chose their status in society and their power over serving God and helping others.  This is why some believe the “wicked tenants” to be the religious leaders of Jerusalem.

         We need to be careful here though – this parable and other scripture have been used by Christians against Jews for generations.  THIS is not a story that looks to condemn Jews or blame them for the death of Jesus.  This is about corrupt leaders who valued their power more than their faith in God and who felt threatened by Jesus, a man who spoke about everyone being equal in the Kingdom of God and how everyone deserved to be loved and respected.[2]

         With that background in mind, what if we were to rename this story.  How might it change our perspective if we threw out the title of The Wicked Tenants and renamed it The Faithful Landowner and His Son?  Think about that for second.  Let’s look back through our Gospel reading today – Jesus asks those who are listening to his parable, what will the landowner do to the tenants? “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.”  Many view this scripture as saying, God will kill the tenants and get new ones.  But here’s the reason why I ask about renaming the story…WHO actually says the landowner will put the wretches to death?  The chief priests and Pharisees…the religious leaders say that…NOT Jesus!!   

         And does it say that God will throw the tenants out and banish them to the dark recesses of the world?  No, simply God will find others who will produce the fruits of the kingdom.  That’s huge if you think about it.  What if this parable was actually offered by Jesus in hopes of inviting Israel’s religious leaders to repent and change their ways.  What if this story wasn’t about punishment and retribution but about faithfulness and invitation.  God – the landowner – hoped for the workers of the vineyard to successfully produce a harvest.  And when the tenants turned their back on the landowner…i.e. God, the landowner continued to faithfully send representatives to the tenants inviting them to change their behavior.  The landowner was so hopeful that he sent his son to the tenants in hopes they would listen to him. The land was never the tenants’ – it always belonged to the landowner, but they chose to ignore that in hopes of securing the land for themselves regardless of how many lives they had to take.  

         This summer, I was asked, by someone I dearly love, why we still read the Bible – that it seemed irrelevant in modern day.  It was full of things that happened long ago, so how could it help us now?  I’ve thought long and hard about that great question and will continue throughout my life, but this week’s events in Las Vegas and this week’s parable help to answer that question for me. 

         A horrific act of violence occurred when one man decided to take out his anger and pain on folks who were simply trying to celebrate life and enjoy some great music.  Though this was the largest mass shooting so far, it unfortunately is one in a long list of heartbreaking events involving guns in our country.  I’ve listened to folks this week talk about how they felt in hearing the news of this event and how some worried that we are becoming numb to it.  That it feels almost common day.  Others also said how they felt sad and didn’t know how to respond.  I’ve felt all those feelings too.  I want to read you something a friend gave me this week – the words are very powerful.  So please, bear with me as I read this short piece and maybe you’ll find a nugget of hope for yourself.

“When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt.   But...that is not what great ships are built for.” --Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.

It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts – adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.[3]

This land – this Earth – is not ours.  It never was and will never be.  We are the tenants who have this beautiful land before us.  We can choose to ignore who sent us and to focus on the things of this world – power, greed, fear, and wealth, or we can choose to plant good seeds – do good deeds – share God’s love with others.  God has shown throughout time God’s faithfulness and love for us.  God continues to reach out to us and to invite us to be in partnership with God.  For the good of the vineyard.  It is up to us to sew the seeds of love and kindness and to be a voice in the midst of chaos.          So as we leave today and walk back out into that world … “Care.  Love.  Be outraged.  Be devastated. Just don’t give up.  The world needs good humans today,”[4] and everyday.

[1] NRSV

[2] Douglas R A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching 

[3] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times, March 13, 2017.

[4] Ellen Degeneres, Instagram.

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