Last week, we heard about an encounter between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders. It was Holy Week. On the first day of the week, Jesus rode a donkey from the Mount of Olives to the temple while the Passover pilgrims praised him. Then he chased the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. After that, He healed some people. When Jesus returned to the temple to teach, the chief priests and the elders were waiting to check Him out. When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23) Jesus responded with a question of His own, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:25) The temple authorities were afraid to answer Jesus’ question and so Jesus declined to answer their question. This is where last week’s reading came to an end.
However, just because last week’s reading came to an end, that does not mean that Jesus stopped talking to the chief priests and the elders. Jesus continued to speak with them and about them. The reading we just heard is just one of the parables that Jesus told while He was in the temple that day.
Keep a few things in the back of your mind as we go through this parable. Many of the events represented in the parable would happen in less than a week. In a few days, Judas will betray Jesus. In less than a week, Jesus will suffer, die on the cross, and rise from the dead. The chief priests and the elders were already having secret talks about how to destroy Jesus. Jesus knew that this was coming when He told this story.
Jesus painted a word picture for His listeners. He said, “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. (Matthew 21:33–34) The setup for this parable is very familiar territory. No doubt many of the Passover Pilgrims who listened to Jesus had seen vineyards just like the one in this parable. His listeners would be very familiar with the idea of renting land for a share of the crops it produced. There may even have been vineyard owners and workers listening to Jesus when He told the parable
Within the context of this parable, the landowner represented God. The vineyard represented Israel. The many details involved in the planting of the vineyard … the fence, the tower, the winepress, and so forth show that God has blessed Israel with all it needs to thrive and grow. The tenants represent the spiritual leadership of the nation. In the current circumstances, that would be chief priests and the elders of the people … the same people who asked about Jesus’ authority. The servants who came to collect the crop would be God’s servants … especially His prophets. The fruit they expected would be repentance and faith.
After Jesus setup the backdrop of the parable, He started making His point. “The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” (Matthew 21:35) The tenants turn out to be violent, insane criminals. There is no sense to what they are doing. Only the most stupid arrogance would believe it could get away with such a crime.
This sentence represents the violent history of Israel towards God’s prophets and other servants. The writer to the Hebrews describes the life of the prophet very well. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35–38) Israel’s history toward the prophets was one of unbelieving rebellion, violence, and torture.
Under these circumstances, the landowner had the right to punish these tenants with death, and that is exactly what the ordinary landowner would do. However, the landowner in the parable is not ordinary. Again, he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. (Matthew 21:36)
Here Jesus illustrated the incredible mercy and grace of God. Instead of judging Israel and destroying it, God sent more prophets. This teaching is consistent with the words God gave to Ezekiel. As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11) God offered life to Israel. Never the less, God’s prophets continued to suffer cruel violence.
At this point the landowner in the parable did something insane. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ (Matthew 21:37) Given the history of these tenants, no earthly landowner would do this. An earthly landowner might send his son at the head of an army with orders to destroy the tenants, but he would never send his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard.
The amazing thing is that Jesus was teaching about Himself at this point in the parable. He Himself is the Son of God. He has come just as the prophets came before Him. The parable is about the person who first told it.
As Jesus continued, the tenants reveal the extent of their insanity. When the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (Matthew 21:38–39) Who in their right mind would believe that they could become the heirs to an estate by killing the current heir to the estate? To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a legal system in the history of the world that would allow such a thing.
Never the less, this parable is eerily accurate in its detail. The tenants threw the son out of the vineyard before they killed him. In a similar manner, Roman soldiers will lead Jesus out of Jerusalem and crucify Him. The parable illustrates the events that will happen to Jesus by the end of the week.
Jesus closed the parable by asking His hearers to judge the tenants in the parable. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (Matthew 21:40–41) The judgment is death. The owner will kill the tenants and replace them with faithful people. There is a hot place in hell for those who violate the precious trust God has placed in their hands and do not repent. This parable is terrifying in its judgment.
The sad thing about this parable is that it is God’s intent to make all people fellow heirs with Christ as the Apostle Paul said: The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16–17) So, within the context of the parable, it was the landowner’s intent to make the tenants heirs with His son. The landowner intended to freely give them the very thing that they tried to take by violence. The insanity of their evil not only caused them to lose this gift, but their lives as well. They could have had it all, but they lost it all instead.
The parable in today’s Gospel is a true tragedy. It ends with a dead son and damned tenants. Jesus was not satisfied with this ending so He followed it with a quote from Psalm 118. 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 marvelous in our eyes’? (Matthew 21:42) With these words Jesus made it clear that the fate of those in the parable need not be our fate.
Just as the rejected stone became the corner stone so Jesus Himself did not remain rejected. Although Jesus died in rejection, He did not remain in the grave. He rose from the dead to become the cornerstone upon which the church depends.
Under God’s grace, even the evil tenants need not be damned. It would not surprise me at all if some of those who voted to crucify Jesus later repented. It would not surprise me at all if they heard the preaching of the Apostles and received the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit. It would not surprise me at all if they, through that gift of faith in the one whom they crucified, were now in heaven praising God.
God’s grace is for all. He wants to give it to us freely for the sake of the perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we insist that God must save us on our terms, then we shall follow the example of the wicked tenants in the parable. When God has His way, we will die in Christ and follow Him. We will not remain in the grave, but will rise from the dead just as Christ rose. We are already Sons of the living God. Jesus has placed His righteousness in our hearts and we will live with him forever. Amen
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