Matthew 21:33-46 (EHV)
33 Jesus said: “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. He leased it out to some tenant farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the time approached to harvest the fruit, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 The tenant farmers seized his servants. They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then the landowner sent even more servants than the first time. The tenant farmers treated them the same way. 37 Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance!’ 39 They took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 So when the landowner comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”
41 They told him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end. Then he will lease out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his fruit when it is due.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes? Ps 118:22-23
43 “That is why I tell you the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was talking about them. 46 Although they were looking for a way to arrest him, they were afraid of the crowds because the people regarded him as a prophet.
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may bear the fruit of love, mercy and grace because we trust in your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
What on earth were they thinking?
I mean, let’s say you’re asked to look after someone else’s farm. Harvest time comes and the owner sends some of his workers to see how well the crop’s going. But instead of proudly showing off all your hard work, you decide to beat one of them up, kill another, and drive over a third. Now, how is this behaviour supposed to help further your career? Do you really think by doing this you and the owner are going to have a good relationship?
Not only this, but when the owner sends more workers to check on the crops, you do the same again! Is this really the way to get you into your boss’s good books?
Then, to top it off, the owner sends his own son. For some bizarre reason, you figure you’ll kill him, hoping by committing this murder you’ll end up inheriting the farm!
What on earth were they thinking?
So, this parable doesn’t seem logical, right or fair. Something’s not adding up. Something’s desperately wrong with the workers, only they don’t seem to realise it and yet have still convinced themselves they’re somehow justified and are doing the right thing.
On the other hand, what on earth was he thinking?
I mean, let’s say you’re the one who owns this farm. You set the farm up nicely with all the right equipment and you’ve carefully prepared the soil so it should produce well. You lease the farm out to some tenants while you go on holidays. Then, at the time when you’re expecting a good harvest, you send some workers to check on the crops. But only one comes back, and he’s all beaten up. The others have been killed!
Now, most people in their right mind would call the police, collect some armed guards, petition some politicians, or maybe even send in the army, but no, you decide to patiently send some more workers to your hijacked farm, and the same thing happens again.
But it seems you’re a slow learner. This time you decide to send your own child into this hostile environment, believing against all reasonable hope that they won’t harm your own offspring. But they murder your dearly loved child instead.
What on earth was he thinking?
So again, this parable doesn’t seem logical, right or fair. Something’s not adding up. Something’s desperately wrong because the owner keeps on acting graciously and patiently when anyone else in their right mind would have acted a lot harsher.
Therefore it’s no surprise when anyone hears this parable, and they’re asked what the owner should do to the evil and vindictive tenants, that they feel justice must be done and reckon the owner should kill his tenants and give the farm to someone who’ll actually look after it and produce good crops.
This seems the logical answer, and it’s the answer the religious people of Jesus’ day give. You see, they’re quite well aware of what injustice looks like and often see themselves as victims. In this case they can easily identify with the suffering owner. It was easy to point out the foolish and rebellious actions of the tenants as deserving of punishment and death. They understood the tenant’s actions were wrong and the fruit of the tenant’s lives was bitter and poisonous.
So, according to the rules of every religion on earth (except one), punishment for such wickedness is not only deserved, but demanded.
But what about you? Would you answer the same way? Do you also think they deserve punishment and death? I mean, they’ve been given so many chances to do the right thing and now have to cook in their own juices! These people aren’t bearing any good fruit in that vineyard and the owner needs to hand his precious vine over to someone else who might bear more gracious, merciful, and loving fruit.
But as the religious leaders of the day eventually recognised Jesus was in fact declaring them to be the wicked tenants who deserved their own judgment of death, could Jesus also be talking about you?
Are you also deserving of punishment and death because of your own selfish, rebellious, and pride-filled actions? For example, has God sent you any pastors or other messengers of God whom you rejected, argued with, complained about, or ignored? Have you badly treated people around you?
I mean, do you always bear fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control in your family life or among your church community, or do you instead bear the bitter fruit of sexual immorality, idolatry, jealousy, fits of anger, and drunkenness? (cf. Gal 5:19-23)
Do you ignore the needy and fill your own house with good things? Do you find it easier to criticise and hate than to be patient, gracious or loving? Do you seek revenge and payback instead of forgiving them? Do you talk about the grace, mercy and love of God, but struggle to put it into action? Do you sometimes act as if people in the church should listen to you more than they listen to God?
And then, if you’re ever convicted of your own sinful actions, how would you feel if your own judgment and sentence against these wicked tenants (or anyone else you’re already judging) was to be used against you instead?
So, no, many people, both then and now, don’t like this parable and what it says to them. Maybe you don’t like it either and want to reject or ignore his message of warning (just like the tenants in the vineyard).
But if this is all you’re going to get out of this parable, then you don’t understand the half of it.
You see, the religious leaders of the day realised this parable spoke about them as much as it speaks about you, convicting you that the fruit you bear isn’t Spirit-filled.
In response they chose not to change their ways, but instead chose to get rid of the messenger. They wanted to get rid of the Son of God who had been sent to them, which meant this parable was fulfilled through Jesus’ death on the cross.
Likewise, many people today still don’t want to hear about their own sin and want to get rid of anyone who points out their wickedness, hoping by getting rid of the messenger they’re now somehow perfect.
But the parable isn’t just about the wicked tenants. It’s also about the patient, loving, and merciful owner. After all, while we established something’s wrong with the tenants earlier, haven’t we also established there’s something very unusual and unexpected about the owner’s actions? It’s this part of the parable which we find a lot harder for us to understand.
You see, we know about crime and punishment. Wicked people should get what they deserve. It’s what we expect from God. It’s what we expect of each other. It’s what we do to each other.
But despite the way you treat each other, God patiently keeps sending his faithful messengers in order to check your fruit. This parable reveals something of the mercy and love of God and just how patient and gracious he is with you.
The chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought they were good, righteous and deserving of God’s love. They had worked hard in God’s vineyard with all their religious rites and traditions, but never looked at the fruit they were producing. Yet, when their rotten and poisonous fruit was pointed out to them, they wanted to put their hands over their ears and say ‘lalala…not listening’ and then conspire to kill Jesus, just like their ancestors did with the prophets of the past.
Perhaps, if they had better understood the grace and mercy of God, they would have asked why the owner didn’t come and punish the wicked servants earlier. They would have seen this was unexpected and therefore worthy of more attention. They would have wanted to know more about his undeserving patience and perseverance.
In this sense, do you truly understand the grace, mercy and love of God?
For example, do you realise Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him, and still did it anyway – for you and me? Do you know he doesn’t treat us as we deserve, but he continues to come to us, speaking his Words of warning when our fruit is rotten, and nourishing us with his Spirit-filled Word and Sacraments? Do you realise he doesn’t expose our sin to punish us, but so that our hearts would be open to his forgiveness? Do you realise he forgives us, not because of anything we’ve done or could ever do, but simply because he loves us?
God persistently gives us wicked tenants chance after chance, and we don’t understand it. We don’t truly understand grace, or mercy, or love such as this. If we did, then maybe we would answer differently than the religious people of the day. If we truly understand God’s loving nature, then we wouldn’t work against him and his messengers, but would instead listen carefully and openly, and, with the Holy Spirit’s help, would seek to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
The fruit we’re to bear are the fruit coming from the roots of the gospel, from the foundations of God’s love, mercy, and peace.
What this looks like is you won’t always treat others as you think they deserve, but even when they’re hurting you or taking advantage of you, you respond instead with patience, kindness, goodness, forgiveness, mercy, and love. You won’t always betray, slander, or lie about people, and you won’t pass on unchecked information which would harm their standing in front of others. Instead, you’ll defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way.
You see, while God has every right to be angry, that’s not his true nature. His true nature shines through this parable. He’s a God who doesn’t give up easily on his people, no matter how rebellious and hurtful they can be. Despite this, he warns us there’s a limit. It’s not that there’s a limit to God’s goodness and mercy, but there’s a limit to our willingness to open ourselves to him. In the end many people often condemn themselves through their own pride and disobedience.
So yes, there’s something wrong with the people God plants in his vineyard. This shouldn’t surprise us. The whole Bible tells us there’s something wrong with the people whom God loves! But what continues to surprise us is how the Lord is always so merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex 34:6).
May we all grow to understand God’s true loving nature and bear the same fruitful actions of mercy, grace, and faithfulness to those around us – whether they deserve it or not.
And in this way, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.