Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46
Ordinary 27A; Proper 8
Jesus gets dystopian this Sunday.
The world described in this parable is one of violence, premeditated murder and greed. No hint of a happy ending. Slaves have been beaten, abused, killed. The landowner’s son lies dead between the rows of grapevines. The foretold next chapter of the novel involves revenge and more violence. Jesus tells this cautionary tale without ambiguity or apology. Those who kill the landowner’s slaves and son will be obliterated and the land given to others.
The ties of this text to the prophets are myriad. The land owner’s slaves, the prophets, were sent only to be stoned and killed. Jeremiah was flogged and put in stocks for his prophesy. The book of Nehemiah says at the people grew disobedient, rebelled against God, disregarded the law and killed God’s prophets. Over and over again, the people are given opportunity to give God what is God’s. Over and over again the people fail to recognize their place in relationship to God. But God refuses to give up, sending the Son in hopes that he will engender a proper response. But even the Son they kill. Nothing will turn the hearts of the tenants determined to take what does not belong to them.
Jesus closes by quoting Isaiah, and the chief priests and Pharisees recognize that Jesus is talking about them. The Scriptures they know so well indict them. And yet, even in that knowledge they do what those wicked tenants do: They plot to kill the son. Nothing will turn the hearts of tenants determined to take what does not belong to them. Power, money, land and authority will be theirs no matter what they must do to seize it.
But what about the other hearers of this parable? What about the crowds and the disciples? How do they hear this disturbing word? What about us and our hearers? Who are we in these verses? Pharisees and chief priests? Disciples? Members of the crowd? What is the word of the Lord for us in these events that feel ripped out of “Game of Thrones” or the “Hunger Games”?
We may need to start with who we are not in this setup. No matter if we are Pharisee, crowd member or disciple, we are not the land owner and we are not the son. The vineyard, so lovingly created and entrusted to the tenants, does not belong to us. That’s lesson number one. We don’t own anything on this earth. It’s all on loan, leased to us for a period of time.
But no matter who the tenants are, if they occupy the land long enough they will start to feel entitled to it. They start to decide who can live on it and who can’t. They get upset by who builds a house beside it. They don’t want to give up the land or the harvest. They do whatever it takes to maintain what isn’t theirs to begin with.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, and God is going to call us to account for how we have tended to the vineyards that have been entrusted to us.
Lesson number two is that we often mistreat the very ones God sends. Rarely do we heed the message of the prophets, hear the voices telling us what God requires or welcome the Word of God, especially when we count ourselves among the religious, righteous insiders.
I recently heard a lecture given by Rob Saler, executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, on Dietrich Bonhoeffer that included a brief discussion from Bonhoeffer’s book “Christ the Center.” Saler summarized Bonhoeffer’s argument this way: “Christ is at the center of the church’s life, but Christ is found at the margins. Therefore, the church’s center must be the margins.” Pharisees then and now want will kill the son rather than follow him to the margins. If the Word of God is spoken most clearly and loudly in the margins, then those at the center will do all in their power to silence it. When we find ourselves eager to stamp out those voices, we also need to recognize that Jesus is talking about us.
Lesson three is that God’s law is to be followed. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Hence, we are still held accountable when we disobey what God has commanded. The tenants in this parable disregard the law. They kill, they steal, they covet and such utter disobedience comes with consequences.
Followers of Jesus Christ are to have an expansive understanding of God’s law, not a diminished one. Calvin’s reading of the Ten Commandments includes not only what the command commends or condemns, but also implications for those admonitions. Calvin writes: “For it is not enough for us to refrain from following all strange gods. … On the contrary, if we really want to keep this commandment, true religion must have first place in us.” Of, the eighth commandment (“You shall not steal”), he writes: “The summary then is that He forbids us to try and draw someone else’s goods to ourselves, and therefore He commands us to work faithfully to preserve for each one what belongs to him. … We will obey this commandment if we always have the goal of helping each one preserve what is his … . Not only that, when we see some people in poverty, let us share in their need and help them in their necessity by our abundance.”
Not only do we not steal, we do all in our power to preserve what belongs to others. Not only do we not steal, we share with those in need. Not only do we not kill, covet and steal, we welcome, share and work for the well-being of landowner, fellow tenant and slave alike.
No matter who we are in this story – Pharisee, disciple or crowd – the vineyard does not belong to us. All we have is on loan. We are entrusted with its care and obligated to turn over its bounty to the one who planted, dug, put up the fence and put in the press.
No matter who we are in the story – Pharisee, disciple or crowd – we need to recognize that often we fail to hear and heed God’s message and God’s messengers. We seek any means possible to silence the Word that calls us away from the place in which we are the center.
No matter who we are in the story – Pharisee, disciple or crowd – we are to obey God’s law, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the one who teaches not only to love those who love us, but to bless those who persecute us, to go the extra mile, to give our coat and our shirt.
No matter who we are in the story – Pharisee, disciple or crowd – Jesus is talking to us, at times about us, and how we respond to his word will determine if he will be for us a stumbling block or our chief cornerstone.
- Note all the ties to Jeremiah in this parable. Look at Jeremiah 20:2, 22:6 and 26:21-23. Read the verses from Jeremiah and then re-read the parable. Does this change your understanding of what Jesus was trying to communicate?
- Look at the other passages where you find Matthew 21:42. Check out 1 Peter 2, 4, 6-8, Isaiah 28:16, Isaiah 8:14 and Romans 9:33. How is this verse used in other places in Scripture?
- When do you think about the Ten Commandments? How do they shape how you live?
- How do we reconcile texts like this parable with forgiveness? Redemption? Are those tenants who are put to miserable death irredeemable?
- How do you understand ownership? What belongs to you? If you consciously thought about everything being on loan or leased to you, how would that change what you do with what’s entrusted to you?
- How is Jesus the cornerstone in your life? In your faith community? What foundation has Jesus allowed you to lay and build upon?
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