Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalms 80:7-14 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46
For today’s Christians, or anyone interested in the parables and what they mean shouldn’t be limited to historical context. If that worked, then we would all have to be living in Jesus’ time. We would think that the Gospels offer a one-size fits all model that hasn’t created any new inspiration in the past 2000 years. The parables must speak to each generation and each individual with new eyes, or they cease to be either scripture or literature and become just words on a page.
For people who claim to be followers of Jesus today, whether we regard Jesus as the Son of God or a rabbi with wonderful things to say, the parables can’t remain historical artifacts, those stories told and retold, but never understood. In reading the parables, we should ask – How does the message the original audience first heard translate to us today? How do the people in the pews, or those living out our lives in community respond to the parables?
Each generation looks for new meanings, reads with new sensitivity, and projects onto the text new issues for today. Truly good literature continues to yield those new meanings, and the parables are no exception. So, two questions remain for us - How do we hear this parable through a set of first-century Jewish ears? How do we still hear that unique message today?
Like Mark, Matthew begins this parable with a scenario that recalls the parable of the vineyard heard in Isaiah 5. In Isaiah, the primary issue is that the vineyard, a symbol of Israel, produces thorns instead of grapes. Grapes are symbols of justice and righteousness. All of the beloved’s efforts to locate, prepare, and secure the vineyard didn’t work, which leads the beloved to remove the vineyard’s protections and allow it to be trampled, wasted, and abandoned. The whole vineyard (Israel) suffers destruction its failure to produce fruit.
In today’s parable, it is not that the vineyard fails to produce fruit, but that its produce is withheld from the legal owner. We tend to jump on the bandwagon that condemns the tenant farmers wholly for the crisis described here. But in Jesus’ day, there was widespread eviction of small land owners from their family lands. So perhaps the tenants’ behavior reflects their conviction that their best hope is to repossess the land by whatever means possible. At a minimum, the tenants’ actions are an act of desperation, a reflection of their vulnerability and their place in the economy.
“When the harvest was at hand…” makes clear that for Matthew that this parable is about the inbreaking of the kingdom. In Matthew, the story is figurative language whose meaning depends on Jesus’ death and resurrection. It bears witness to the meaning of the resurrection. Christ is the rejected stone and after his resurrection becomes head of the corner.
Matthew makes clear that this parable is not directed against Israel as a whole, but against the leaders. The crowds regard Jesus as a prophet but they still don’t fully understand how to place him in the story. He is, after all, the son.
We see the dogged persistence of the landlord in claiming his own. The servants who are sent to the vineyard, are the prophets, perhaps including John the Baptist. The son is Jesus, who will be killed outside the city as the son in the parable is killed outside the vineyard. The landowner is God, and the final threat within the parable points toward the day of judgment and perhaps the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The “other tenants” of the parable and the ‘nation’ may refer to the Gentiles, or a new generation of faithful leaders within Israel – Christian Jews. As it is with faithful people, these new tenants will bear fruit. We must bear fruit.
The idea of Israel rejecting God stands at the heart of the parable. This same problem of rejecting God takes many forms today. First, there are those people who simply declare that there is no God. They see the beauty and order of creation. They acknowledge the power and splendor of the universe. They do not deny the perfectly designed “vineyard” in which they are allowed to live. They simply deny that they have any obligation to whoever is responsible for this arrangement. They attribute creation to random chance and unregulated circumstances. We reject God when we reject the work of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.
We frequently hear that membership in today’s churches is declining. More and more people speak of “spirituality” as opposed to religion. People don’t seem to want Jesus, or the church, or the Bible or regular forms of worship. But they do want some vague gift of the spirit in their lives. What does that mean? Perhaps it means we want God’s strength when we need it, but can’t be bothered the rest of the time.
Some people don’t completely reject God. Perhaps some want to keep one foot in both worlds. They worship things or money or prestige instead of God. Another way we reject God is when we reject some of God’s people for reasons of our own. Human beings are capable of doing horrible things to other people whom we define as less worthy, less human, less valuable than themselves. If we can manage to turn another human being into the “other”, there is no limit to what we will do or will allow to be done to them. We can be as brutal to one another as were the men who beat, stoned and killed people in the parable.
This country maintained slavery for over 200 years and then practiced segregation for many more years, because America was able to define black people as the “other.” We very nearly wiped out the Native American tribes and nations, simply by defining them as the “other.” There have been other nations that have rejected God by way of rejecting some of God’s people. Germany employed the Holocaust, and the Soviet Union used the gulags. It was called apartheid in South Africa and ethnic cleansing in central Africa. In twenty-first century India, there is still a group called the untouchables, and in Australia there continues to be discrimination against the aboriginal people. In each of these cases, there were some people refusing to accept the humanity of other people. When we reject some of God’s people, we are rejecting our God who made them.
The parable continues with anyone who turns away from Jesus and from those teachings will forfeit the abundant and eternal life that God has in store for those who live in obedience. The effects of greed and the desire for wealth that we see all around us could have been avoided. People have ruined their own lives by worshipping the wrong things.
A bumper sticker read, “The world you desire comes not by chance but by change.” What a difference one letter can make. The world God is shaping through the ministry of the church will not be established by chance or coincidence. It will come only when people change how we live – no longer rejecting the will of God who made us, but by striving to live together in peace. When we embrace all of God’s people, it is then that we bear much fruit – fruit that lives in our words, our deeds, our heads, our hearts and our feet. The kingdom of God is here! Amen.