How the negative helps us find the positive in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants
a Homily for Proper 22 A | Text: Matthew 21:33-46
It is a great honor to be here to join you this morning. I am so thankful for the grace and generosity that has been shown to me already. I am so excited about the work we will be doing together.
About a month ago, as I was preparing to come here, I was speaking to my friend Tracie, telling her about all the sermons I had to write between then and now. I had to not only say goodbye to St. Paul’s in St. Clair, Michigan, but I had just a few weeks left to help them see where GOD is moving in that community. GOD is still speaking to them, even if I am not there to help them hear it.
My friend suggested that I should do a simple introduction sermon: who I am and introduce you to my family. Now, Tracie knows me pretty well. And she knew that I couldn’t fully embrace her suggestion. Not when we have such a tough gospel to deal with.
Violence and the land
Let’s think back to last week. We heard Jesus tell a group of Pharisees the Parable of the Two Sons. One says he won’t do something, but then chooses to do it anyway. The other says he’ll do it, but then doesn’t. Jesus asks the Pharisees “which did the will of the father?” The one who did the work, right?
This question Jesus asks is in the midst of the great confrontation at the Temple after Palm Sunday. Jesus has just come to Jerusalem and the Pharisees are trying to trap Him and Jesus, instead traps them. His trap leads them to lose face, to lie, and to cover their backsides. So he presses them some more. Is it about doing the right thing or claiming the right intention? They know the truth just as we do.
Jesus tells another parable about a landowner who sets up a vineyard and leaves tenants to care for it.
When the landowner sends his people to check on the tenants, they brutally attack the slaves.
So the landowner sends more. And the same violence occurs.
And the landowner sends his son. And the same violence occurs to him.
So when Jesus speaks of the landowner’s response to these tenants: that he gave them, what, 3 tries? He asks them rhetorically: what do you think the landowner would do in response? He tells them the unsurprising response is that they would be tortured and killed.
What we normally hear
At this point most of us have some Christian programming that kicks in. The little voice we hear saying This is just an allegory for GOD and Jesus. The landowner sends his Son to die–that’s totally just Jesus talking about Himself and the crucifixion.
Or the little voice tells us Well, that’s why we are supposed to do what GOD tells us to do, or else we’ll find ourselves punished like those tenants. And we ignore the implication of a GOD that would torture its own children.
I hear those voices too. I also hear a different voice. One that reminds me that Jesus doesn’t always speak directly or plainly. Jesus doesn’t speak in the language of law, but in the poetic of story. And Jesus’s story reveals something really important to us about GOD and the Kingdom by showing an example of the kingdom breaking through our world.
I don’t think the vineyard is the kingdom and the landowner is GOD. This isn’t a story of the world GOD has created, but the world we keep creating and Jesus reveals how the kingdom peeks through it.
What isn’t the Kingdom
When Jesus introduces the story, he says
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.
Several years ago, Rose and I went on a self-guided wine tour in northwestern Michigan. There are some great wineries on the hilly coastline near Traverse City. We stopped and tasted and ate lunch and had a great time. Not a single one was surrounded with a fence and none had a watchtower. You know what places have fences and watchtowers? Prisons.
And it was near the outskirts of Jerusalem when Peter asks Jesus how many times must he forgive: 7 times? No, Jesus says, but 77 times! The landowner doesn’t forgive anywhere near as many times as Jesus tells us to.
So this parable Jesus is telling the Pharisees is not a clear picture of the Kingdom. It is a picture of the world as the Pharisees know it. Brutal. Selfish. Destructive. Not at all the way GOD wants it.
Remember then, who Jesus said gets to be first in the kingdom? The tax collectors and sinners. Or, to be more direct, the traitors and the prostitutes go first. They get the highest place. The rest of us still get in, of course. We just have to wait our turn.
After the parable, Jesus quotes the Torah
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”
This is not just about Jesus, but about GOD’s vision for the world as the kingdom. That the rejects go first. It is time for those who are ignored to have a say. For those that the world rejects to get an opportunity to shape the world’s future.
In my experience over the last 6 weeks, it has become abundantly clear that Jesus isn’t condemning St. Stephen’s in this passage. The warmth of the welcome, the enthusiasm in all of the emails I have received, the well wishes and offers of help to me and to Rose have been abundant and truly amazing.
We aren’t supposed to be the primary audience for Jesus’s parable. We aren’t those Pharisees. However, it is helpful for us to remember the negative teaching: the make-sure-you-aren’t-like-this kind of parable. The this-isn’t-the-kingdom parable. Because then we know when we aren’t seeking the kingdom, so that we can turn and chart a different course.
We always need reminders of what the Kingdom does and doesn’t look like and who it is for. That, in GOD’s house there are many rooms, and we know that we are welcome. And we know that other people are welcome, too. People we may not be so excited to have with us. Or people that behave in different ways. Or people that communicate different expectations.
And then the positive teaching becomes easier to find: that we are called to care for the kingdom, celebrate our guests and tenants, and give rest to the sojourner.
So, now that we know what it doesn’t look like, may we all be eager in our growing relationship to continue in our lifelong discovery of what the kingdom does look like. May we do so with great hope, honesty, and thanksgiving.