When we read the parable of the Wicked Tenants with the resurrection in mind, we can see both a warning for those that think they own the vineyard, and the reality of new life for the whole vineyard.
Vicar Lauren Mildahl
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 27 A
Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Beloved church, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s been a crazy few days for the Jewish religious leaders.
Passover is coming up, which is always a busy time, and worshippers are arriving in Jerusalem from all over Judea. And just yesterday there was a huge commotion when some rabbi from Nazareth rode into the city on a donkey, like he was some kind of Messiah. The people thought he was a prophet and they didn’t check with the chief priests and the Pharisees – they just started spreading their cloaks in front of him and waving their palm branches, and singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” A huge disruption and a great way to catch the eye of the Roman occupiers.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, this Jesus went straight into the temple and started turning over tables! What were those chief priests supposed to do when Jesus chased out the money changers and the dove sellers? When he threatened and condemned the whole temple economic system that they relied on? And then Jesus had the audacity to park himself there all day, healing the sick, with no regard for the proper procedure of their sacred spaces. And the children wouldn’t stop singing that chorus, over and over again.
And the chief priests and Pharisees had had enough. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, they thought. We have systems. This is OUR temple!
And so when Jesus came back the next day, they confront him. Last week we heard them, summoning all their bluster, practically frothing at the mouth, “By what authority are you doing these things?” The thing is, they don’t really want an answer to the question. They want to maintain their power, and the status quo. They want their tables back in their places.
And Jesus is pretty frustrated too. I imagine that he still smelled a little bit like donkey, that he still had splinters in hands from the tables he was tossing around, that he still had the words of the song the children were singing stuck in his head. And he can see the path that he is on, and where it will lead by the end of the week. And here are these chief priests and Pharisees, the ones who absolutely should know better, the ones who should have understood what was going on, and they are quibbling about authority.
So Jesus tells them a story.
A story about a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. And then leased to tenants. And not very good ones as we soon find out. He tells a story that is pretty harsh. With some uncanny similarities to what is about to happen. A story that doesn’t end well.
This is a story meant for specific people.
Not only is it directly addressed to the chief priests and Pharisees, it is a story that was deliberately constructed for them too. It was clearly meant to be heard by those who really knew their scripture. Right off the bat, Jesus makes an allusion to Isaiah 5, the Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard, in which God sings about planting a vineyard, digging a winepress, and building a watchtower. In that passage, the prophet Isaiah is warning the people of Judah. “You may be God’s cherished garden, but God will not abide your rotten grapes forever.”
The religious leaders would have picked up on this, would have realized that by invoking Isaiah 5, Jesus meant the parable to be a warning. In fact we are told explicitly that they knew that Jesus was speaking about them. They knew that they were the wicked tenants.
But they couldn’t bear to give up the idea that the vineyard was theirs.
Of course, the kingdom of God wasn’t theirs and deep down they probably knew it. But they were so resentful of the fact. They wanted it to be theirs. Just like we sometimes have to remind ourselves that this isn’t our vineyard. It’s God’s. It’s not our kingdom, it’s God’s. It’s not our church, it’s God’s. We aren’t even the tenants.
We are the vineyard.
We are a vineyard that doesn’t always produce good grapes. But we are beloved and cared for and lovingly tended by God. We are the vineyard that God plants and builds a watch tower over and agonizes over. The vineyard that God would send the Son to claim and save. The vineyard that the Son would die for.
And if only the chief priests and Pharisees had taken a moment to consider, wait a minute, what if we don’t have to be the tenants? What if they had given up their claim to the power and the systems they were clinging to? What if they embraced their place as part of the vineyard? They might have produced some good fruit.
And at this point, we have to talk about the end of the story.
At the end of this parable it seems like the tenants win. The Son is dead. With no grapes to show for it. But we know that’s not the end. Jesus died, but he didn’t stay dead.
The resurrection has to change the way we read this parable.
It takes the rhetorical question asked in Isaiah, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” and answers it forever. God sends the Son, the Christ, God’s own self to be with us. And not just to die, but to live! To create life where there was no life. To restore and renew everything! When we read this parable with the resurrection in mind, we can see that it isn’t about God’s wrath, it is about God’s closeness. It is about the Gospel that comes as a person to be close to us. A story about a God that is so close that you could trip over him, like a stone you didn’t see and stumbled over. And it is a story about how easy it is to trip and fall on that stone if your eyes are set on protecting your own power.
This parable is a warning to all those who think that they own the vineyard, but it isn’t a categorical rejection of the chief priests and Pharisees, because that’s not the end of the story. Punishment comes, yes, but so does reconciliation, because God came to save the whole vineyard, including the Pharisees. And we know that because a Pharisee who wrote half of our New Testament!
Paul was one of the very people that this parable was meant for.
He rattles off his entire pedigree to the Philippians: “circumcised on the 8th day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Before he met Jesus, Paul thought the vineyard was his. Maybe he even thought he was doing God a favor by persecuting the church, when all he was really doing was protecting his own position. Paul thought he knew it all. Until he stumbled right over the stone that the builders rejected on the road to Damascus. When Paul meets the Son who died and rose for the vineyard, he realizes that all of those credentials, everything that he might have boasted about, everything he knew before – it’s all rubbish. The real value, the surpassing value, is knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection.
The resurrection makes all the difference.
For Paul and for us. This is the end of the story. The end that is just the beginning. New life in Christ. For everyone. For disciples and for Pharisees. A beautiful, beloved vineyard, built on the cornerstone of Christ.
This is the Lord’s doing. And it is amazing in our eyes!
In the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.