Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2020
Matthew 21:33-46 Commentary
That’s probably not a word (or a sound effect) you associate with the parables of Jesus. But it’s more apt than you might think.
Eugene Peterson famously said that parables are narrative time bombs. These are stealthy stories that steal into people’s hearts, confusing them initially, throwing them off balance for a while. After all, at first these seemed like cozy, tame little stories about farmers and seeds, women and bread baking, fathers and sons. People let the stories steal into their hearts and imaginations. They had no defenses up to keep them out. Why would they? These are such nice stories, interesting, vivid, well-told.
But at some later point the “Ah-ha!” moment may arrive as the real meaning of the story suddenly explodes in people’s minds like a time-bomb. The parables were meant to blast people into new awareness, new understandings, new ideas. “Oh my!” people would exclaim, “We thought he was talking about farmers and crops but he was really talking about us and God!!! And we maybe don’t come off looking all that great, either!!”
But if all of the parables were like narrative time-bombs, then I think it’s fair to say the Parable of the Tenants was like a proximity-fuse grenade! In this case, it did not take very long at all before this parable blew up in the faces of those listening to Jesus. In the end, we are told that the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jerusalem that day knew at once that “Jesus was speaking against them.” It made them furious and they were ready, right then and there, to arrest him and be done with this Jesus once and for all.
Telling parables can get you killed!
This parable is one of only three that appears in all of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere. You could pick and choose among the others but not with these three.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel. Perhaps that is because contained within the imagery of this parable is material that points to a key pivot point in salvation history. If we look closely, we will see that Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone to the entire world.
The first hint of this comes in the first verse. Verse 33 is pretty detailed when it comes to describing the vineyard. Jesus could have said simply no more than, “Once upon a time a certain man owned a vineyard,” and then gone from there. But in this case Jesus is downright elaborate in mentioning the planting of the vineyard, the wall, the winepress, the watchtower. What’s up with all this detail? That’s not typical of other parables. In Matthew 21, however, vintner-related details fairly pile up. But there is a reason for this: it is an overt allusion to Isaiah 5 (and there is also a hook in this week’s Lectionary psalm of Psalm 80 where the ruined vineyard is discussed from the perspective of Israel’s exile to Babylon).
Isaiah 5 contains its own kind of parable in which Israel is compared to a vineyard. In that story a vintner who clearly stood for Yahweh invested lavish amounts of labor and money into his vineyard, anticipating that the end-result of all his fine and hard work would be a rich harvest of lusciously sweet grapes. But when the harvest came, the farmer found that every single vine contained sour grapes, bitter and vile and inedible! So in a fury he plowed the whole thing under.
Isaiah 5 was a prophetic parable pointing forward to the time when God’s vineyard of Israel would be “plowed under” by the Babylonians on account of Israel’s repeated bitter failings to produce the kind of spiritual fruit God was looking for in his chosen people (again, cf. Psalm 80). In other words, the image of Israel as vineyard was used in Isaiah 5 to point forward to a key turning point in God’s dealings with this world. Now in Matthew 21, by so deliberately invoking this same image, Jesus likewise is as much as saying that in the grand scheme of things, a new and significant turning-point would soon be reached.
The vintner-farmer is God. The vineyard is the people of God, the Jews, in Jesus’ day. The tenants who eventually turn on the vineyard’s owner were clearly the religious leaders of the day, and the moment you make that connection, it’s not difficult to see why in the end these folks were so huffy over what Jesus had said! Jesus was clearly saying that the vineyard tenants were on the wrong side of history—of salvation history in this case.
“What do you suppose the owner will do with these tenants?” Jesus asks in the end. Literally the crowd replies, “He will annihilate those evil-evils.” The Greek word for “evil” is piled up twice, as though to say they were the worst of the worse, the doubly evil villains, evil-squared.
It is at this point that you expect Jesus to say something like, “Yes indeed, the owner will come and wipe them out.” But he doesn’t say that. Well, not exactly anyway. Instead he quotes a rather odd verse from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone after all. You suspect that no one in the crowd that day saw this one coming. What happened to the tenants, the vineyard, the story itself, for goodness sake!? What does a stone have to do with what Jesus had just been talking about?
In terms of imagery, this may be a difficult transition to make. But in terms of the larger theological symbolism contained in the vineyard story, we can see how this cornerstone image fits in perfectly. This entire parable is about rejection. First the tenants reject the owner by rejecting the entire sharecropping arrangement. Then the tenants reject the owner’s emissaries and servants. Finally, they reject even the heir, the owner’s only son. But true to form, God is about to do a double-reversal: the son who got rejected will emerge as a highly powerful figure who will, in turn, reject the rejecters!
But it takes faith to accept that. The problem with the tenants of Israel in Jesus’ day is that they had long since given up on true faith. Practically speaking, and for all intents and purposes, they had decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. So when in history God had tried to redirect them through the prophets, they ignored, battered, and sometimes just killed those prophets. Their insularity was so complete they had concluded that unless someone said things that affirmed what they were already doing and believing, then that person could not represent God. They were so cock-sure they had God cased that they found it easy to reject anyone who did not sing the party line.
And whenever we religious types reach that point vis-à-vis our God, that is a bad, fatal moment indeed.
The gospel writers seemed to savor the delicious irony of salvation emerging from the least likely location. They enjoyed this irony so much, in fact, that the once-obscure text of Psalm 118:22 went on to become the single most-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Out of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, this little nugget about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner wins the prize for most frequent New Testament citation. In a quirky way, the verse itself does the very thing it is talking about: the little verse that seemed least among many other verses in the Hebrew Bible emerges on top in the gospels and epistles! You would have expected a different verse to get this kind of attention–perhaps something from the covenant with Abraham, a snippet of a sermon from Moses, one of those soaring prophetic passages from Isaiah, or even Psalm 23.
But no, Psalm 118:22 manages best to convey the gospel’s great reversal of expectations. From lowly and humble beginnings, Jesus would end up being the rejected one whom God would raise up to be the most impressive of all biblical figures. The carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire would turn out to be the cosmic King.
It is a grim fact that the last group admitted to the Country Club typically becomes the loudest voice in making the case to keep out the next group seeking admission. After all, once you make it to the inside of a Members Only club, you want to savor your new status, see it as a key achievement, a notch in your belt, a feather in your cap, a sign that you are now really Somebody. But if you start to let in just anyone—and particularly such-and-such a group—then suddenly your special status starts to feel diminished, watered down, less of a distinction than it had been. The very purpose of having a club is to have a door to shut behind you, to have barriers and walls around you to keep out . . . riff-raff and other undesirables. If you don’t have standards to bar certain people from admission, then what’s the sense of having a club to begin with?
This is human nature, I’m afraid. And it’s also the reason that when a religion starts to see itself as a club, it’s pretty much game over in terms of reflecting and incarnating the loving heart of God.
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