Sermon October 4 Matt 21:33-46 Tenants Behaving Badly Rev. Betsy Hogan
Such a pleasant parable, don’t you think? The one we heard just now, the one that Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew, the one the lectionary cycle of readings has so generously bestowed upon us for World Communion Sunday…
It’s always such a delight when Jesus speaks a parable filled with murder, treachery, and violence. But such is life, and such is the world, and such is life in the world, and such is what it means to want the words to which we look for guidance and wisdom and strength to actually be honest about the reality that is ‘life in the world’.
Which -- in the context in which Jesus originally spoke this parable -- included oppressive tenant farming arrangements, and slavery, and angry tenant uprisings, and violent landowners. And so here they all are, in our passage for this morning.
All ready to be entirely understood as an entirely familiar context, by the chief priests and leaders of the people, to whom Jesus speaks this parable.
And they DO immediately understand the context, those chief priests and leaders of the people, just as Jesus knew they would! Because for them it’s a fairly straightforward construct. There’s a vineyard, there’s an owner, there are tenants whose job it is to tend the vines and prepare the harvest – and instead they don’t.
Instead they basically go lawless. They seize the owner’s slaves who come to collect the harvest, they beat some, they kill others, and even the owner’s SON, when the owner sends him, they seize him too. And toss him out too. And kill him too.
They’re running riot, these tenants on this vineyard. The chief priests and leaders of the people can totally picture this story, as Jesus is telling it to them. They can imagine it happening, it’s completely realistic.
And so they’re ready, when Jesus asks them, they’re ready with the answer to “what will the owner do to those tenants, when he returns?” Because they know EXACTLY what he’ll do. Because they know exactly what THEY’D do. If it were them. Which heaven knows, it easily could be.
Because they’re all landowners themselves. They’re the chief dignitaries, the leaders of their community. They’re all landowners themselves, and God forbid anything like this should ever happen to them, but it could. And every one of them has thought about that as a real possibility.
So what will the landowner of these tenants do when he returns, Jesus asks them? They know exactly what he’ll do. Workers gone lawless? Taking, destroying what isn’t theirs? What they’ve no right to? When that owner returns, he’ll smash ‘em. Restore law and order. As well he should, the chief priests and leaders of the people tell Jesus. As well he should.
And Jesus… pretty much concedes the point! Which is great… until as he keeps talking it slowly dawns on the chief priests and the leaders of the people that in this parable that’s actually more of an allegory that Jesus has just expanded on from the teachings of Isaiah…
They’re not the landowner. They’re actually the tenants.
I have planted for my beloved a vineyard, God says, in the book of Isaiah. And here we all are, God’s beloved, for whom this vineyard was planted. For whom this place provides not just the food we need and water to drink, but also beauty and labour and creativity and industry and challenge and home. And an interesting and complicated and constantly provocative life.
It was all made for us. All of us. But if for one minute we imagine it’s ours? That it actually belongs to us or to anyone other than the Creator who created it?
Oh, you chief priests and leaders of the people, Jesus says to them, you are so very wrong. In this parable, if your instinctive response is to identify with the owner? You are not the owner. You're the tenants.
In fact, Jesus is saying to them, you're those tenants. Behaving in this great vineyard God planted for the whole human family like it's yours. Like it's under your jurisdiction, like you can do with it what you want. Bleed it completely dry, hoard all its bounty, murder any trespasser, and flatly refuse to share.
In this parable, he says, to them and to us, you're actually precisely those tenants that you've easily recognized are behaving badly. Appallingly. Unconscionably. To the point that you've easily concluded they ought to just be smashed by the actual owner.
But here's the thing, Jesus would say, if that were the sort of phrase he'd ever use – here's the thing. The actual owner doesn't actually WANT to smash you. The actual owner really just wants you to realize that you don't have to be those tenants.
We don’t have to be those tenants. Who treat this vineyard like it's ours. Like we can do with it whatever we want. Bleed it dry, hoard its bounty. Like its only point is what it can produce... for us. And no one else. What the actual owner really just wants is for us to realize we don't have to be those tenants. We have a choice.
We CAN actually be tenants who look around at this vineyard God planted, and live in it and work in it and tend it and flourish because of it – while understanding deep deep deep in our bones that it's NOT OURS and that it was entrusted to us as a human family to be shared. With each other... but also with those who aren't even born yet.
We can actually be the tenants, the stewards, of this place who've heard Jesus’ gospel of love, and it's making us look at this vineyard differently. Not as ours to be stripped bare in service of our own comfort and ease, but as God's – and how much of its harvest do we really need? Can we really not give some up? Is it so impossible to make that sacrifice? To realize this vineyard needs a rest?
We get to choose what kind of tenants we’ll be. That’s what this gospel passage invites us into. And to be honest, realistically. With all those graphic details that are no fun at all, but they're real life: questions of jurisdiction, and condemnations of greed and violence and hoarding, as a matter of life and death.
It's World Communion Sunday. That's our perspective today – one human family. We get to choose what kind of tenants we'll be. We need to get this right. God being our helper. Amen.