We are reminded of God’s interest in our responses to injustice by Jesus’ clarity and directness as he tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46). In this story the tenants try to avoid their responsibilities and accountability with the Vineyard owner, and instead, want to take over the vineyard and eject the owner. They want to go a different way.
Jesus tells this parable to the Temple crowds in Jerusalem the day after he had arrived in Jerusalem when he was welcomed as ‘the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee’ (Matthew 21:11). He had gone from the procession straight to the temple the previous day and when he saw how the authorities had commercialized the temple, he overturned the tables of the money changers and those who sold animals and birds in outrage, disrupting all their businesses.
The next day, Jesus had gone back to the temple to continue teaching as he knew he was running out of time for his ministry. This parable is the second in a series of three powerful and disturbing parables told in Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus engages with the temple leaders and their followers over questions about his authority and their position and understanding of God’s kingdom.
As we lean in to listen to Jesus, like the disciples and crowds around him, I realise I am holding my breath.
The most obvious interpretation of this parable, places God as the vineyard owner, the Jewish religious authorities are the tenants, the Hebrew prophets are the slaves who were killed and injured and Jesus is the son of the vineyard owner.
To assist us in the reflection, we referred to readings from Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Philippians 3:4b-14. Exodus reminds us about God’s commandments, telling us not to covet, steal or murder.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us Paul had been a righteous Jew, with all the right religious credentials and was highly respected in the Jewish community for his commitment to persecuting and killing Jesus’ followers.
Paul gave it all away to become Christ’s follower, was eventually arrested and killed by the Romans and was consistently rejected by his own community for his perceived betrayal as he gave his own life to Christ. He counted the cost as nothing as he had gained everything in his discipleship.
So let us understand our position in the parable.
The story is drawn from Isaiah (5:1-7), but Jesus also quotes from Psalm 118:22-23 with the reference to the cornerstone, as we are invited to consider religion’s rejection of God’s revelation. As present-day guardians of our Church’s doctrines we too can be enraged by the parable and its implications for us. Like the leaders and members of the Jewish community who would have felt disrespected and shamed by Jesus’ story, we too feel like this when people challenge our understanding of God’s justice and inclusive welcome to all.
We have polished and cherished our doctrines over centuries, we have anticipated what God will say to us based on what God has already said. Just like those who have gone before us, as we find ourselves standing alongside the Chief Priests, the pharisees and elders, as we mistake certainty for faith in the living God.
What we have here is unbelief, that is, opposition to divine revelation. This is active idolatry and self-righteousness, in place of, and in opposition to, the manifestation and self-offering of God.
As we start down the road of believing and saying the Gospel belongs to the Church and under the Church’s idolatrous control, religion inevitably becomes what people are led to believe in, instead of God. In the end, we kill the living Son, so we may get his inheritance and own it and control it. We seek to possess what may only be received as a gracious gift from God.
Religious institutions work in most societies to conserve beliefs, morals and reigning social order. Jesus’ message was very quickly taken over in the following centuries and from Constantine onwards, became the ruling power’s religion and tool for control and oppression of the people.
Priests and leaders are very reluctant when confronted with a contrary witness to the truth – with a living word that invariably surprises them when it turns out to be a working of God’s Spirit, to be God’s word. This is especially so when that witness and that word threaten their authority. It is still happening today.
Looking back we remember with shame the church’s response to prophetic voices concerning racial injustices, slavery, the role of women, the treatment of our indigenous sisters and brothers, and today, the acceptance of people identifying with the LGBTI community.
Today we stone those whose words challenge the reigning economic order or definition of the family. Frequently, we are blind to the light of God’s glory shining from unauthorised sources, especially when that light shows us up poorly, highlighting our own arrogance and privilege. When our own misunderstanding of the Scripture becomes evident and our rejection of those always unlikely witnesses used by God to bring us to faith, ones we have already dismissed, we become angry and reject both the messenger and God. Only when we look back through time is any of this then truly obvious.
So, I think if we do not realise Jesus is speaking to us today, we miss the truth of these matters.
When the living Son of God turns up in the vineyard where we have been set apart to tend and labour, threatening the inheritance of our much loved religious practices and beliefs, it is at that point we will know we are dealing with the living God. When the Holy Spirit blows and disturbs us and the living God reminds us God is alive and disturbing our peace, rather than dead, comfortable and controllable, God becomes the mirror held up to our lives and we must respond to the new challenges today with love and graciousness.
I started out by saying neutrality or impartiality when it comes to injustice is not an acceptable or sufficient answer for any Christian. The vineyard owner kept on trying to reach the tenants. The owner did not give up, he did not stop hoping the tenants would change and provided opportunities for that to happen.
In this telling of the parable it was the listeners who wanted to put the tenants to a miserable death and give the vineyard to others. Just as we have always done in the way we have become comfortable and don’t want to change, don’t want to be accountable to God and don’t want to have to include those we don’t like.
Jesus reminded us:
‘The stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.’
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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls. (Matthew 21:42-44)
Jesus is leaving us in no doubt. Our rejection of Jesus will break us spiritually, mentally and physically. Our rejection of Jesus and those whom he includes will tear us apart if we are not inclusive. Neutrality and impartiality is not acceptable, defensible or in any way understandable to God. The prophets did not speak gently and give way to the ruling powers when they disagreed with them over issues to do with justice, oppression and hatred. Can you imagine Isaiah, or Jeremiah or Nathan being silenced? Neither should we.
Those prophets to whom Jesus refers were direct, clear, relentless in their messaging and reminded the people around them what God was requiring. We too can choose to be with the chief priests, elders and pharisees, protecting our own narrow understanding of God and the limited confines of our comfortable existence, or we can listen to Jesus and to those on the outside of the church and move ourselves to join them; and we will find ourselves among those, who like Paul, are the tenants who will give God the produce at the harvest time.
The Lord be with you.