Read the text here: Matthew 21:33-46
One of the challenges to interpreting the parables is that many of them have long established interpretive traditions and these tend to color and influence our reading of them, even if unintentionally. In some cases this is a good thing. In some cases, not so much. The parable for this morning is one of these latter. The parable of the wicked tenants has a long, sad and violent history as being a proof-text for anti-Semitic activities. This interpretation suggests that the Jewish people, like the wicked tenants, have destroyed the servants (prophets) and the son (Jesus) and because they are guilty of killing Jesus they should be put to the sword and persecuted. This is NOT what this parable is about. That interpretation completely misses the mark and, more than that, is thoroughly anti-Gospel. So there is no misunderstanding: I completely reject that interpretation!
As is common in most of Jesus’ parables they tend to focus either on God (the land-owner in this case) and/or on US. WE are the wicked tenants. WE are the ones who have rejected Jesus, and killed the servants and the son. WE are the ones who are always trying to get something for nothing (see ELW hymn #349 – Ah, Holy Jesus – verse 2!). God, the landowner, has called us to work in the vineyard of the world. But we decide we want the fruits of the land for ourselves and we refuse to give back to God that which is rightfully God’s. And we beat and mistreat and murder those who would call us to be responsible. And what does God the landowner do in response? God keeps sending servants, until finally God sends God’s son. In other words, God never gives up on us. This is the amazing part of the story, and the part that is too often missed. Certainly the attitude of the tenants is kind of crazy. Do they really think they can get away with this plot to take over the vineyard? But what about the landowner’s constant efforts to establish a relationship with the tenants and never giving up, no matter how many servants are badly treated? Well, that is kind of crazy too. That’s the thing about God’s grace – it isn’t sensible, it isn’t logical – it just is – abundantly!
So, after all that they do, how should the landowner treat the tenants in the end? “They should be put to the sword and utterly destroyed!” Now, who says that? The Pharisees and scribes who are listening to Jesus tell the story. Jesus doesn’t say that! And in speaking those words of condemnation the Pharisees and scribes condemn themselves! And…
“…that's part of Matthew's narrative strategy, I suspect, to have his opponents voice their own condemnation. But it invites us to consider a different question: not what will that landowner do, but what did that landowner do. And to that question we have Jesus' own answer: the landowner sent his son, Jesus, to all of us who have hoarded God's blessings for ourselves and not given God God's own due. And when we killed him, God raised him the dead, and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God's desperate, crazy love.” Dr. David Lose, Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary
This parable is, like the others, about the abundant and extravagant grace that God has for us! In this parable Jesus is illustrating how God goes to extravagant and excessive, even illogical and crazy extents to shower this love and grace upon us. And no matter how many times we reject God, God keeps at it. God keeps working on establishing a relationship with us!
This parable is paired in Matthew, with the Parable of the Two Sons (from last week). Jesus’ words of interpretation that conclude that parable make it clear that ultimately it is all about faith (see 21:32). So too does the Parable of the Wicked Tenants point us to issues of faith. A loving, patient and forgiving God freely and abundantly showers God’s grace upon us. How will we respond? Will we accept this gift? Will we respond to the gift with faith and trust that leads us to act in responsible and generous ways towards God and others? Or are we content, like the tenants, to assume that we can get something for nothing? And to take God’s crazy love for us for granted?”
Please note - this is a repetition of an article I wrote in 2011 during a sermon series on the parables...