The Parable of the Wicked Tenants:
Our Lord’s Commentary on Old Testament History and the Gospel
a homily on Matthew 21:33-46
One of the big challenges for Bible readers is understanding the relationship between the Old Testament and the Christian. There’s much in there that’s confusing, ancient and foreign, even questionable or downright wicked. What do we do with all these old stories? How do they fit in with the Gospel – the teachings of Christ and the salvation he has made us know? There are several ways to go about answering this question; we could look at the covenants or at theological themes, the fulfillment of Law and Prophecy, or any number of other angles. But today we’re given a fantastic summary of the Old Testament’s teachings in this parable spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ.
This parable follows directly on the heels of the one we heard last week – about the two sons: one disobedient to his father and other obedient. That parable was directed at the Jewish religious authorities of the time, pointing out that some of the worst sorts of sinners were repenting and entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them because they only gave the appearance of devotion to God – mere lip service – while the tax collectors and prostitutes were legitimately repenting of their sinful ways. Jesus now adds this parable to set the Pharisees in their historic context, and thus gives us a window into the history of God’s people.
Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
We’ve got a vineyard as the centerpiece of this parable – something Jesus often did. Many Prophets of the Old Testament, as well as Jesus, used the figure of a vineyard to describe Israel, God’s people. Thus this parable sets us off with a picture of God’s covenant community as the vineyard, God’s people as the tenant farmers, God’s ordained prophets or clergy as the messenger servants, and God himself as the landowner.
The harvest, thus, is the result of the labor of God’s people. The fruits of the vineyard of Israel, or the Church, is described in many ways: the increase of righteousness; virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and other fruit of the Spirit; as well as the increase of the fellowship of God’s people – the repentance and conversion of more people from following Satan to following Christ.
35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.
Moses and Aaron were rebelled against. One of David’s sons led an insurrection against hm. Elijah was hunted by the Queen of Israel. Jeremiah was imprisoned multiple times by the King of Judah and his officials. John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod.
37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
The last of these great shepherds sent from God to lead his people in Jesus himself.
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Like those before him, Jesus was to be mistreated by his own people. But it was also worse than before, because in killing the Son of God, the people were literally taking God’s inheritance – their salvation – into their own hands.
40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Just like last week, with the parable of the two sons, the Pharisees condemn themselves at this point. In response to this rejection, God had planned a new covenant – a new way for people to live in love and obedience to him. This new covenant was to be made through Jesus himself, and would be built upon a second, spiritual, birth into God’s people, rather than through earthly birth into the earthly people of Israel. Instead of cutting away man’s flesh in circumcision God would cut away one’s sin in baptism. And in the midst of this gift of the new covenant through Christ, many would reject him, stumbling over the very foundation stone of God’s new temple, the Body of Christ.
Now let’s go beyond today’s Gospel reading and finish Jesus’ teaching in chapter 21 so we can get the full application.
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
The initial purpose of the vineyard – bearing fruit – is finally returned to. The whole point of us Gentiles being brought into the Church at all is not simply to “replace those unfaithful Jews.” Christianity is not a matter of anti-Semitism as some have made it out to be. Rather, God brings people into his Church to produce fruit. Whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile in background and family history, the call is the same: be one with Christ, be a faithful worker in God’s vineyard, walk in step with the Spirit, become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And Jesus makes it explicitly clear here that he is essential to understanding and receiving this new covenant. If confrontation with Jesus, God the Son, leads one to fall or turn away, then that person will be broken or crushed under the burden of their sins. As we confess every week, “the burden of [our sins] is more than we can bear.” Our guilt and wickedness will crush us unless we are united with Christ and can thus accept his cleansing blood in exchange for our sins, which he alone can take away.
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Finally the Pharisees understand Jesus. They know that he is speaking against them, condemning them, proclaiming a Gospel they do not and will not recognize. And so they, as does everyone who chooses another path, resolve to get rid of Jesus. To those whose eyes are darkened by lies, even the light of Christ is loathesome.
So there we have, on one hand, a handy way of summarizing the Old Testament. It’s God’s repeated efforts to shepherd, guide, feed, and care for his people, and our repeated rebuffs of his love. The way Jesus was treated in Jerusalem is the epitome of how the majority of God’s holy ones in ages past had been treated by the people they were sent to care for.
On the other hand, forever thereafter, the way of martyrdom has been respected among Christians as the highest form of devotion and sacrifice: we cannot give any more to God than our own lives. So we also get a picture in Jesus and the Prophets before him of what godly love looks like. The call to lay our lives down before Christ, and instead to take up a Cross, and follow him… this is no simple matter. This is not just a philosophy, nor a way of life, nor a mere relationship. This is a religion through and through! We are called to faith of the mind: to believe God at his Word, in the person of Jesus and in his Apostles’ written testimony in the Scriptures. We are called to faith of the heart: to worship God and grow in love for him and see the world as he sees it. We are called to faith of the body: to serve and obey God, to live in accordance with that same belief and worship.
It’s all well and good to say we believe and claim that is enough; “even the demons believe, and shudder!” It’s all well and good to say we love Jesus and claim that is enough; “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In addition to these things, Christianity is about working in the vineyard to nurture and produce its proper fruit.
At it says in one place in Scripture, the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. If you see these growing in your life alongside your knowledge and love of God, well and good. If you do not, seek to know and love the Lord all the more. “Take up and read,” as Saint Augustine learned. “Kneel before the Lord our Maker,” as Psalm 95 puts it. And do not neglect the opportunities of the Church gathered to seek counsel, spiritual friendship, and the other many benefits of the fellowship of God’s people. This is one vineyard where we may all labor together. “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,” (Hebrews 10:24-25a).
Let us pray. Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in continual godliness; that through your protection it may be free from all adversities, and devotedly serve you in good works, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.