Matthew 21:33–46 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
(Mk 12:1–12; Lk 20:9–19)
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “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.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Allegory is probably one of my favorite dramatic, and literary forms. Allegory is very similar to a parable or a fable because it is a story that has a message to it, but it is different in many ways because allegory has layers of meaning. Most people are aware of the great allegorical works of C.S. Lewis from reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but there are several other storylines that apply this concept. The great science fiction novel Dune has elements of allegory, as does The Lord of the Rings (although Tolkien would argue with you about that since he claimed he despised allegory. Even some movies are filled with allegory, the movies that make us think and ponder contain plots that are built with allegorical elements, movies like Star Wars though very entertaining can provide lessons for life. There is even a religious movement based on the concepts presented by the Jedi of this series, with over 8000 members in fifteen different branches. Why mention allegory? Because often Jesus spoke in parables, but sometimes he spoke in allegory. The parable of the wicked Tenants is an allegorical story that is layered with meaning, and probably the one parable that challenged the religious leaders to the degree to seek the elimination of the divine rabbi.
The interesting thing about this story is that no matter what era of history we read it in it seems to apply. The ancient Fathers of the Church who interpreted pretty much everything as an allegorical message to Jesus, saw layers that could be applied not only to the contemporaries of Jesus but also to the culture and society of their day, and oddly enough most commentators through the ages have continued to read this story in much of the same way.
Jesus speaks of a landowner that planted a vineyard. The interesting thing about a vineyard is that vineyards are a lasting investment. They take time to establish and time to become profitable. Most varieties of grape vines take a minimum of 3 years before they produce fruit, and often do not produce an abundance of fruit for another few years. So one does not simply decide to plant grapes on their property like they would wheat, they must plan and budget so they will be able to survive for the duration. But once the vines are established, if they are properly maintained, they will survive for generations.
It is not hard to recognize that the vineyard that Jesus speaks about is the Kingdom of God, which during this time frame was mainly thought of as the nation of Israel, but I have mentioned that allegory is layered with meaning and as the concept of the Kingdom of God expands so does the story.
The second thing mention is that the land owner builds a fence around the vineyard. Fences are defensive devices used to keep things in as well as keeping things out. Vineyards are a high risk high profit agricultural investment, not only today but throughout history. People that operate vineyards are some of the most protective people in a community and rightfully so. Grapes are very sensitive and tasty. The fence was to keep a variety of beast from intruding into the vineyard uninvited, a wide variety of animals would do whatever they could to gain a taste from the vine and often do great damage to the plant. But the worst beast of all is humanity. Greed and jealousy have been part of the human condition since Cain and Abel, it has continued to grow since and cultures have attempted to temper this through various means. Things like a fence were not only to keep animals out but also to provide a deterrent to theft. Let us think about the fence some more. Fences in ancient times were not like fences today, wire in ancient times was so difficult and time consuming to produce that it would not be used something such as a fence, but for jewelry. The drawing of metal into wire started in ancient Egypt but would only be done with the softer and more beautiful metals such as gold. It was not until 19th century that the technological advancements in drawing metal into wire became feasible for uses as common as fencing. Ancient fences were basically walls, and the more important or valuable the contents inside the fence were the taller and thicker the walls became. So as we imagine a fenced in vineyard, we should imagine a fortress and not a pasture. We should imagine stone walls or tree trunks driven into the ground fortifying and protecting this land. Since trees were fairly scarce in Israel it would most likely be a stone wall taller than a man, and it would probably be capped with clay embedded with sharpened ceramic shards to provide greater protection from the beasts that seek to destroy.
God has provided a means of protection for those that follow Him. The ancient Laws handed down from Moses are like a wall to protect the followers of God. Things in those law when investigated deeply we can find scientifically what exactly God was protecting the people from. Things like parasites that can be present in foods that are not properly cooked or stored, allergic reactions, even the threat of molds and mildews we hear about so often today were included in the Laws of Leviticus. Also included in those laws are conceptual ideas that benefited the community as a whole laws about protection of people on you property, how one should treat resident aliens, and even debt. Many of these concepts history cannot prove were ever fully followed, but when tried the community grew and justice prevailed for all people within.
Next the owner builds a winepress and a watch tower. These items provide added value. A tower provides early warning to danger as well as greater defense. The wine press provides the ability to add value to the produce of the vineyard. Like the fence this protects the livelihood and wealth of the community.
Then after the landowner builds and establishes this vineyard he went off to another country leaving the land under the care of tenants. When harvest came he would send servants back to the vineyard to collect his portion of the produce. It is difficult for most of us to understand this portion of the story because many of us are not involved in agriculture. But most agricultural land is not owned by those that tend to the crops. Even today’s farmers rent large portions of their farms. When one rents land there is payment, today payment is generally a cash value and the farmer can keep the total crop, or the rent is a fraction of the produce. The story Jesus tells is alludes to a fractional rent concept. The Land owner comes by at harvest time to collect his portion of the crop. The tenants began to think that the owner was asking for too much, so they mistreated the servants, killing those that he sent. To the point that the owner sends his son to collect what is rightfully his. The rebellious tenants then kill the son thinking that they will liberate themselves from the land owner. Jesus then asks, what will happen to these rebellious people? The people first listening to this story tell Jesus that the land own will forcefully remove the tenants and give the land to others that will give what is required.
The allegory of this story is that it is layered. The concept applies to agricultural relationships, as well as cultural and religious concepts. Like I said before the vineyard is the kingdom of God, the fence or the protective force surrounding the kingdom is the law or the church, the wine press and tower are our lives, and the tenants are the leaders within. Think about that for a moment. The lessons that Jesus applied to the leaders of Israel 2000 years ago, are still very relevant today.
God has established this world and has set us up as stewards of his creation. He has given us boundaries to live within and as long as we stay within those boundaries our lives are generally protected. But often times we take matters into our own hands and begin to think we are in control. We rebel. We begin to think that we are the masters of our own destiny. When this happens our lives become more complex and complicated.
Greed and jealously creep in, and we cut corners instead of being honest. This happens at every level, in corporations, and in families. Children think that they deserve cookies and they will take them without asking, greed. Corporations wish to make more profit so they use inferior products that cheat their customers out of money, greed. Those that work begin to think that others are keeping them from success and they demand more, jealousy. Some even go so far as to take matters into their own hands and take what they think they deserve, which is both greed and jealousy.
These are the things that devour culture, these are the things that the very laws of God were given to protect us against yet from the beginning of time we have rebelled against them. Empires have fallen because of the elements behind this story. We no longer hear about the great Assyrian empire outside of history class because they fell due to greed and jealousy. We no longer see Pharaohs sitting over the Kingdoms of the Nile because of greed and jealousy. The sun now sets on the British Empire because of these very same elements.
We are no different. We as a church are no different. We as a culture are in the very same place as so many before us. God has given us a simple life to live. He calls us to love Him with all we are and with everything we have, and to love our neighbors. He can make this call because he is the land owner all we have is really his and he can make those sorts of demands. And when we rebel, he will take what is perceived to be ours and give it to others. Isaiah cried out in his vision from God saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
We live among people driven by greed and jealousy, we often times get caught up in the very same things, but God is calling us to something better. He is calling us to become a people that live a different rhythm of life, one that makes it their custom to worship Him that will withdraw to isolated places to spend times in conversations with Him in prayer, and will listen to His words and minister to the needs of those around them. This is the rhythm of life that Jesus himself lived while he was among us, the very son of God sent to call humanity back to God. But often we want to live a life of selfish rebellion. And instead of embracing the life within God’s loving arms we instead want to control everything for our own personal profit. What does that give us?
Today, like every day, we can make that choice to turn from the pathways leading to destruction and begin to journey down the pathway with Christ. Today, like every day, we must choose to be a person and community that will live for God or live for ourselves. We can be rebellious tenants or faithful friends. Today we can begin to build a community that is loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with other.
As we enter this time of open worship and holy expectancy, the time of communion with God as Friends, let us each reflect on this multi-layered story, let us put ourselves inside and walk around for a bit, and ask ourselves and our God where we can improve as individuals and as individuals within our community and culture as a whole.
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