The Parable of the Tenants cuts a hard-edged image of the relationship between the tenants and the land owner. The landowner repeatedly extends grace to a group of tenant farmers, who respond with ungratefulness and greed. If we consider where we may fit in the story, we are presented with only discomfort. This week, Vernon Gramling illustrates in his blog how we can resemble this group of tenants–not always in such dramatic acts as those told in the parable, but in common, small ways that we easily overlook.
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress 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.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
In the early 70’s I was beginning my pastoral training in a general hospital. During our orientation, the Medical Chief of Staff sat with us to discuss his role as a physician. These were years fresh out of the sixties. Authority and power were being questioned at every turn. And that included the doctor/patient relationship. He told us that every physician had to exercise authority but he/she always needed to remember that the mantle of authority that the physician wore was borrowed from the patient. That image has stuck with me ever since. I think it is a helpful image when considering this passage.
The parable is part of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his confrontation with the religious authorities. He has cleansed the temple and debated with the chief priests and elders. Then, just prior to this parable, Matthew places Jesus’ telling the Parable of the Two Sons (also known at the Parable of the Prodigal Son). Whereas Luke presents this Parable as part of a trilogy to illustrate God’s seeking, Matthew uses the same parable to challenge the religious authorities understanding of God. The parable for today, ‘The Wicked Tenants’, follows immediately and significantly sharpens Jesus’ challenge.
The owner/tenant relationship is key. The landowner provided the tenants with a livelihood. In this story, he provides a well appointed vineyard. It included the land, the crop, a fence, a wine press and even a watch tower. Workers could expect to work in relative safety and could expect a harvest and a product that would allow a generous life for their efforts. Though they worked the land, the tenants did not own it. They were stewards whose position existed because of the landowner. And as long as that relationship was honored, both the tenant and the landowner benefited.
But that relationship was fractured. The tenants in this story are well provided for but they wanted more. In their minds, they deserved a bigger piece of the pie for their labor. They did not need the landowner. He was in a far country and they were doing all the work. Never mind that there would have been no work at all except for the landowner. They wanted control and mastery over what was not theirs. They lost all sense of gratitude. They assaulted messengers from the landowner and finally even kill his son. It was a power grab based in entitlement.
Now you might notice, there is a little bit (maybe a lot) of crazy in this passage. The tenants had neither humility nor gratitude. They wanted control of what was not theirs. Such attitudes are actually rather common (more on that in a minute) but the landowner seems even more out of touch. You would think he would learn by the second round of beatings that it was unsafe to send more emissaries. But this landowner sends his son into this caldron of rebellion. On the face of it, he is either in major denial or stunningly naive. His tenants had clearly demonstrated they did not respect their relationship and responsibilities.
Matthew uses this parable to challenge the stewards of the faith—the chief priests and the elders. Jesus charged that they had become self interested and were failing to serve the needs of the people. They forgot or ignored the source of their creation. They had lost contact with their responsibilities to the one they served. Obedience took priority over people. Self righteousness replaced inclusion and service. The stewards of the faith had failed to understand their relationship with God. Their authority was borrowed from God.
And of course we do the same thing. We too have been granted stewardship— of the earth, in our relationships,—even the very bodies we inhabit. None of these are ours. We forget that. It is God who has made us and not we ourselves. We are tenants. We are stewards of these gifts. But we treat our world and our ecosystem as if it is ours and not God’s. We become entitled. We routinely damage the land we have been given in the service of short term profit.
Likewise in our relationships, all too often we expect to be enhanced. We forget that love is always a gift. We seek deference and agreement rather than love. We use our vows to coerce instead of promise. Instead of cherishing, we expect to be cherished—and resent our partners when they disappoint.
And very few of us care for our bodies as gifts from God. We either impulsively disregard our bodies needs with our eating and exercise habits or compulsively discipline ourselves to make ourselves look better. Neither is being good stewards. Whenever we lose our humility and gratitude, we run the risk of becoming entitled. And entitlement will destroy our relationship with God.
A good tenant is mindful. The good tenant protects and cultivates. The good tenant is grateful and serves. The tenant knows that his very life depends upon the landowner. That is what God expects and what God so relentlessly and patiently tries to teach us. The traditional interpretations suggest God has sent prophets and the law to lead us. They were ignored or misunderstood. Finally he sent his son—not to punish but to save a misguided people. He wants us to be in right relationship with him—even when in our fear and stubbornness, we act like we are in charge and do not need him.
While the human expectation is that we will be punished and have miserable deaths, God does something else. He sends his son—who, even in death shows us what it means to depend upon God. He seeks to show us the way. If we insist on our own way, we self exclude ourselves from enjoying God’s love—but we do not stop God’s loving. The son’s coming as a servant rather than an angry warrior reverses human expectation. His death does not defeat him. God simply looks for tenants who can give up their entitlements. He looks for people who can appreciate the gifts and responsibilities they have received. That is where grace abounds.
The last two verses need some comment. 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
This is a sharp rebuke to the chief priests and the elders. They have failed as stewards of God and the responsibility for proclaiming God’s word. Someone else must proclaim the God of love to all peoples. The word could not be treated as exclusive property.
In chapter 23, Jesus is even more confrontive. One small example of many, “for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” They failed to see that God came as a servant king and they failed to serve. They failed to see that what the Lord required was that they ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.’ That failure separated them from God. Their self styled positions were broken and crushed.
We simply cannot love God and act entitled. May we live in humility and gratitude. That is the doorway to life. Let it be so.