Rev. John Morrison
Reading Matthew 21:33-46 (NRSV)
Jesus told many wonderful parables during his 3 years of public ministry. Today we are looking at one of them, often called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. I’m inclined to call it the Parable of Contested Ownership though, for reasons which I hope will become obvious before I finish.
I think this is one of the most important parables of Jesus. I’m not lauding its significance just because I like it and I think it’s a great parable. The Gospel writers themselves rated it as extremely important. There are only a few parables that occur in all 3 Synoptic Gospels. Most parables occur in just one Gospel, even some of the best-known favourites such as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
But this parable is in Matthew and Mark and Luke. Each of them thought their account of Jesus’ life and teaching just had to include this parable, and we’ll see why.
Eugene Peterson, who compiled the Message Bible, also wrote a book called “The Contemplative Pastor”. In there he describes parables as time bombs. He says people would have initially seen them as casual, interesting stories about everyday life. With their defences down, these stories would steal into their hearts and imaginations. But then would come the “Ah-ha!” moment when the meaning and relevance of the story explodes like a time bomb. They realise that Jesus was actually talking about them and God. The parables were meant to blast people into new awareness and new understandings and transformed lives. That’s certainly the case with this one, though the time fuse is shorter than with most.1
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is God. The vineyard is a common Old Testament image for the people of God, the Jews. The tenants are the Jewish leaders who in the past had mistreated and killed God’s messengers (the Prophets) and who in Jesus’ day were wanting to get rid of the owner’s son (Jesus himself).
Through this parable Jesus makes some startling claims and predictions.
- Firstly, he is obviously claiming to be the Son of God, sent on a special mission by God, with the authority of God. He had made that claim numerous times before and the religious leaders had rejected it. In fact, they had accused him of blasphemy and had plotted to silence him. Yet he continues to assert his divinity.
- Secondly, he predicts his death.
V39 of the parable: “So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
Jesus says this to the very ones who are wanting to get rid of him.
As we see at the end of the passage (v45,46), they are not at all contrite. They continue their resolve to arrest Jesus.
- Thirdly, he pronounces judgement on them.
In fact, they virtually pronounce judgement on themselves first. Because Jesus asks them what the vineyard owner will do when he comes (v40).
They reply (v41):
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
Jesus says the owner of the vineyard will indeed come and take the vineyard from them and give it to new tenants who produce the fruit of the kingdom.
Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone to the whole world. He is heralding the great turning point of salvation history when the Kingdom of God would be opened to the Gentiles.
Since then there has been a new Israel of God composed all people with faith in God, for which we are eternally grateful.
- The fourth statement that I want to draw your attention to is in v42 where Jesus says:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
This is actually a quote from Psalm 118:22, which is the most quoted verse in the New Testament.
At first sight it might seem a bit strange for Jesus to say that at this point in the conversation. It does however continue that theme of rejection. The vineyard owner’s son was rejected by the tenants, and the stone was rejected by the builders.
I think there’s a more compelling rationale though. There’s a problem with this parable. As so often with parables, it is unable to tell the whole story or contain the totality of the glorious truth.
In the parable, it is not possible for the son who has been killed to come back to life. But Jesus wanted to foreshadow not just his death, but his resurrection as well, as he had done on other occasions.
And so he quotes this verse that tells about the rejected stone becoming the most important stone of all. His resurrection is implied. The other places in the New Testament where this verse is quoted also make that point.
As important as those 4 assertions from Jesus are, I think there was a more general challenge that he was wanting to bring through this parable. He wasn’t just wanting to state his sonship again, or predict his death, judgement, and his resurrection.
I think stewardship is central to this parable. I’m not just talking about money when I use that term but using it in the broadest sense – seeing ourselves a steward, not the owner; as a servant, not the master.
That’s the challenge that Jesus blasts the chief priests and Pharisees with.
It’s one that goes to the very core of our attitudes, motivations, priorities and allegiances.
And it’s a challenge that the parable still confronts us with today.
The attitude of the wicked tenants is all too prevalent today. We see it in how tightly we grasp things and want to own and control them – relationships, time, the home we live in, money, our job.
Hull McGee, an American preacher, says this:
“Motivated by ownership, we do the same thing, don’t we?… My, how tightly we grip to what we have, thinking it’s ours to hoard and protect and control rather than a gift to be shared and used and given back… How painlessly we become sharecroppers who lord over a kingdom that’s not our own nor ours to own, going to all lengths to remove any threat that crosses the vineyard fence.” 2
Amongst the many implications of this kind of attitude is an environmental one. I mention this especially seeing today is the end of Season of Creation.
Here’s a helpful comment from Bruce Prewer, the late Australian Pastor and writer whose book “Australian Psalms” will be known to many of you.
“The bottom line of the parable is clear: God is the owner who has built up this world from nothing. There is no other owner. It belongs solely to God. We are only like tenants, or share farmers, or stewards within this vulnerable creation… Whenever we forget our significant yet lowly position, we are in trouble and so is the vineyard. If we puff ourselves up and get sucked into the delusion that we are masters of this world, then we become a destructive force. No longer are we a blessing but a blight on the earth.” 3
What kind of tenant are you? Are you like the original tenants, the wicked tenants,
- failing to supply the fruit the owner asks for?
- rejecting the owner’s authority and rightful claims?
- working for yourself without acknowledging any other boss but yourself?
Or are you like the new tenants?
Actually, the parable doesn’t tell us what the new tenants are like. We hope or even assume they will be better, but will they?
The parable is open-ended in that way. That’s because we are the new tenants and the story is still ongoing. The outcome will depend on our stewardship.
I close with a one sentence thought provoker from Barbara Brown Taylor:
“The tenants killed the son too but he would not stay dead and to this day he is still haunting the vineyard, reminding us that we are God’s guests — welcome on this earth and welcome to it so long as we remember whose it is and how it is to be used.” 4