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.” [Matthew 21:33-41, NRSV]
Jesus of Nazareth is singularly about advancing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He tells a parable, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, to explain how, by their thoughts and actions, the religious leaders – the chief priests and the scribes – are not promoting the progress of the kingdom of God, but are actually impeding it.
To prepare humanity for works of kingdom-advancement, God the “landowner” has set up all the fundamental and necessary structures of the “vineyard” for the people to labour in – a vineyard, a fence, a wine press, a watchtower. Israel, as bearer of God’s revelation, is the vineyard. The religious leaders are tenants. God, as the owner of the vineyard, makes it known through the prophet Isaiah that He has done everything needed to be done for the vineyard: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4). The point is clear: if the vineyard is poor in fruit-production, the fault lies not with the owner but with the tenants. In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the religious leaders are the wicked tenants. Religious leadership is the target of criticism here. Instead of building the kingdom of God, they usurp the authority of God and claim ownership for themselves, building their own kingdom instead.
1. What’s Wrong?
The tenants have wicked ideas.
Refusing to follow original planting arrangement, the wicked tenants beat, kill, and stone the landowner’s servant representatives. These servants are the prophets sent by God throughout the history of Israel to remind the religious leaders of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. Throughout the Old Testament, we see that every time Israel broke a covenant with God, God came back with a new covenant. Israel repeatedly showed herself to be unfaithful to God, but God always came calling Israel back to Him. God never gave up on Israel. Every time Israel killed a prophet, God raised up another. Never giving up on Israel, landowner-God sent one servant after another until, finally, He sent His own Son. Still, the religious leaders as wicked tenants did not listen.
- They wanted the vineyard for themselves, their actions marking a shift from tenancy to ownership;
- They wanted to be autonomous and not in covenant-relationship, marking a sinful mentality by which the sinners are wrapped up in themselves;
- They wanted to pursue unfettered power and privilege, marking an ultimate degradation towards the decision that the Son of the landowner must die!
2. Power Excludes
To achieve their wicked goal, the religious leaders’ strategy was one of exclusion. They reasoned that to be fully in charge, they and their friends were duty-bound to make sure that people and ideas that threatened or in any way disturbed their position and how they did things must be declared unwelcome. A demand for accountability on their part must by any means at all be denied. All who came to tell them what to do had got to be excluded from their midst. To safeguard their desired power-base, their perceived status, dignity and privileges, they had developed a “culture” by which to protect their interests. They imagined that only with zealous exclusionary measures could their “special” identity be fortified and their divinely ordained turf kept secure.
Everywhere we turn, the problem with such a power-culture is, rigorous exclusionary practices of religious leaders constrict their vision and seriously hamper their kingdom-building work. They erect walls of separation, isolating themselves from others in order to bolster a false sense of self-importance. They end up avoiding the very people, things, and ideas that will save them.
What would a present day reenactment of such a scene look like? Picture the following at a cathedral parish family day if you will:
- An enthusiastic Catholic related a disturbing experience – well, disturbing enough to want to tell his friends about it. His local bishop had just celebrated the early morning Mass at the cathedral, the “seat” of his “power”. Before the final hymn, the commentator announced that, in conjunction with the cathedral’s parish family day, coffee and breakfast would be on sale at the gallery and “please let’s patronise the many food stalls and join in the fellowship.” So after Mass the bishop nimbled along from the sacristy to the gallery. On arrival, he saw a number of retiree-parishioners who, like early birds, were already seated at three tables, visibly enjoying each other’s company, seeping their coffee and eating their favourite local delights. The food stalls were run by volunteers young and all. Stall operators and patrons all saw the bishop alright. He walked one whole round to check out the food stalls, looked at the parishioners seated and coming in, and then he left! He didn’t even sit down. He left! Why? What happened? They saw him. They recognised him. But none greeted him, let alone invited him to coffee. What happened? Isn’t he the “head” of that parish family? Isn’t he the one with all that official “power” and “authority”? And isn’t this a parish family breakfast? Nobody, not a single person from amongst the stall-operators or their patrons – all parishioners of the cathedral parish – called or invited their bishop – the “father of the parish-family” – to coffee. It was a parish family breakfast. Nobody greeted him; he did not greet “nobody”. Nobody sat down at table with him; he did not sit down at table with “nobody”. His “power and authority” remains intact of course for still, just as he had previously pointed menacingly to the congregation from the pulpit before and thundered: “You lay people listen good, WE are the ones to decide!” Wow, what a truckload of power! But, doing precisely what Jesus says he and his lot should not be doing, he relishes in power and lords it over the people (Matthew 20:25). He excludes. He builds walls of separation. He does not think he is but a temporary tenant. He claims ownership. The problem, as always, lies in the mentality. But what a sad commentary on church. Could you find a picture more skewed than that!
3. Wickedness Destroys
Back to the parable. As they had repeatedly persecuted the prophets of God and conspired to kill His Son, the religious leaders had actually placed a judgment on themselves:
- They are unworthy tenants and have forfeited their place in God’s vineyard.
- They are gradually being destroyed by their own wickedness.
Quoting from Scriptures on the stone that the builders having rejected becoming the cornerstone, Jesus is saying that God’s plan has taken into account both the colossal failures of the tenants to behave as good tenants, and the rejection of His servant-representatives – the prophets and finally His Son. In the end, God’s plan will prevail. The Son, who by his steadfast fidelity to abide by the will of God in works of kingdom advancement, even though he was rejected by the religious leaders and even put to death by them, will become the cornerstone of a new house of the Lord. He who was rejected would be raised to become leader of an ever-new batch of tenants who are tuned and inculturated to making good wine from the vineyard of the landowner.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, August 2018. All rights reserved.
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