The Tenants in the Vineyard

Tenants in the Vineyard     8th October 2017         Madingley

Isaiah 5:1-7    Philippians 3:4b-14   Matthew 21:33-46


The series of parables Jesus told, spread over a considerable amount of time, are growing in intensity as he makes it  abundantly clear now who he is accusing of failing to fulfil their calling by God. The Chief Priests and the Pharisees, the groups targeted especially in the parable we heard today, would have made up a large part of the audience. They would have picked up on the connections to sections of the Scriptures without any difficulty at all, and in fact our first reading this morning is one of those passages. So, their understanding will have been that when Jesus referred to a “vineyard” he meant the nation of Israel, and the landowner was God.


These religious leaders would have pricked up their ears as Jesus began the parable, wondering what new twists he was going to add to the original story in Isaiah. Isaiah’s slant was that the whole vineyard, everyone in the nation, had gone wrong, and lost sight of their calling by God to be a light to the nations. But Jesus turns his attention to the tenants; he is not pronouncing judgement on the whole of the nation, but on one segment of it. And who do the tenants in the story represent? The Chief Priests and Pharisees, and they knew it.


Jesus begins by building up a picture of the careful way in which the landowner creates the vineyard, presumably preparing the soil before planting the vines. He then ensures that it is well fenced in, and has the equipment installed which was necessary for producing wine, and a watch-tower so that the workers could keep a look-out for intruders. It’s not difficult to see how this is an illustration of God creating the world, and his special protective relationship with the Jewish nation. He is seen as leasing the vineyard to tenants, trusting them to care for it and ensure that it remained productive. But the parable takes an ominous turn when harvest-time arrives, and the landowner sends his employees to collect what was rightfully his.


The way the tenants react to the news that the landowner is wanting to collect the results of his careful planting is not only unjustified, but completely against the law. To begin with they seize the servants and beat, stoned or killed them. The landowner sent a second group, and the same thing happened to them. If nothing else, the tenants were guilty of short term thinking; whereas this approach might defer them having to hand over to the owner the profit from the harvest, it was not going to solve anything in the long run. But given that sending his servants had been unsuccessful, in a final effort, which he thinks is bound to bring about the required results, the owner sends his son. Surely the tenants will not attack him?


But the tenants seem to have lost all sense of reality. They come to the conclusion that if they kill the heir, then they will inherit the vineyard. They’re still not capable of long-term logical thinking. Whatever made them think that way? When, in the real world, would someone whose only son had been murdered by a pack of thugs, leave them all his worldly goods in his will? It doesn’t make sense.


In reality, would the religious leaders expect to retain God’s favour if they kill his prophets, and even his Son? However, in the parable, this is what they do. The tenants take the son outside the vineyard, and kill him. This is clearly a statement by Jesus that he knows he will be crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, the holy city and centre of religious life for the Jews. However, instead of spelling out the point of the story himself, Jesus ends by asking a question of his listeners:  “When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The answer is immediate; there’s no doubt what the consequences of the tenants’ actions will be. They will be put to death, and other more reliable workers will be installed in their stead. That is wonderfully ironic; if the tenants represent the Chief Priests and Pharisees, they have just declared the punishment they deserve for failing to serve God as he had asked of them.


Jesus sums it all up by quoting one of the psalms which would have been very familiar to his hearers: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” In case they don’t see the connection to their own situation, Jesus warns them, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”


This parable appears in all 3 synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, so clearly it was seen as being significant. Mark precedes it by an account of a confrontation between Jesus and the senior religious leaders. They demanded to know by what authority Jesus was teaching and healing, who had given him the authority to do these things. Jesus said he would answer them if they would first answer his question: was the baptism which John the Baptist offered as a result of a calling from God, or was it based on human authority?


The leaders were in a quandary; they knew they were trapped, and there was no answer they were prepared to give. If they said John’s ministry was a calling from God, Jesus could justifiably say, “So why didn’t you believe him?” If on the other hand they said it was simply a human vocation, they knew the ordinary people would object strongly, because they believed John to be a true prophet. So they played it safe and said, “We do not know.” And Jesus’ response? “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” At which point, in Mark’s Gospel, he launches into the parable we heard in Matthew’s version this morning.


So in both gospels the Chief Priests and Pharisees were well aware that Jesus was talking about them in this parable, but knew that they were powerless to do anything about it because the rest of the people would have prevented them taking any punitive action, since they believed Jesus to be a prophet too. And the significance of that is that the audience would have realized that the emissaries the landowner sent to collect the proceeds of the harvest, represented the prophets of past times who had been rejected and murdered by the leaders of their own day. If Jesus was a prophet in their time, it did not bode well for his survival, and the audience would have picked up on that.


Where the religious leaders would have perceived this parable as a major condemnation of their spiritual blindness, they were unable to make the leap and see who the Son is. The fact that they questioned the source of Jesus’ authority was an indication that they suspected the truth, but they just could not accept it. It didn’t fit with their way of thinking and their desire to control the faith of the people.


The remarkable thing that they could not accept is that this parable is another sign of the way God takes an apparently hopeless situation, and turns it on its head, bringing good and light out of evil and darkness. Strangely, it was because of the rejection of Jesus by the religious and political leaders, that God brought about our salvation through the death and resurrection of his Son.


His way of putting things right is so paradoxical, so upside down and against our sense of what is rational and likely to happen. No wonder the religious leaders of the time struggled to comprehend what was happening; we shouldn’t run away with the idea that we would fare any better were Jesus to appear in or midst today. But what it does mean is that when things seem at their most hopeless and dark, God has a totally unexpected answer. So we can look to the future with hope and trust, especially if we are able to let go of our desire to be in complete control of things, be prepared to look for the unexpected, and to allow God to do the work he longs to do, in the nation, in the church, and in us.