Read Matthew 21:33-46
Let’s begin with a little framing. Think back to the religious leaders challenging the authority of this man called Jesus. They wanted to know by whose authority was he teaching and preaching and doing all of these things that had stirred up quite a following.
Jesus said to them that if they would answer his question then he would respond in kind. Jesus asked them to get off the fence and state whether John the Baptist’s authority and the baptisms that he performed were from God or from human authority. Simple enough, right?
If they said from God, then Jesus would chastise them for not getting with the program. If they said from people, the people might form a lynch mob because they believed John to be a prophet. So they told Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus replied by telling them that he would not answer their question either; but that was only the beginning of this encounter. Jesus had the religious leaders squarely in his sights and offered them the Parable of the Two Sons. At the end of this parable, he told these self-righteous leaders that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of them.
Apparently, Jesus launched immediately into another parable focused mainly at the Pharisees and other religious leaders.
Next, we need to note that we might make an exception to the general rule of trying not to be allegorical in our interpretation of parables. This parable makes that task nearly impossible. It seems that most things in the parable directly represent something else, though not all scholars agree exactly what all is represented.
The third piece of framing is that this is another parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. It seems to be talking about things on earth but the Kingdom of Heaven is in play here once again.
So Jesus is teaching—and maybe chastising the Pharisees in parable, he is perhaps allegorical, and we are again keeping company without our old parable friend—the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let’s get allegorical.
The vineyard is Israel. Isaiah 5 and the fact that it is set apart from the rest of the world by a wall helps here. The landowner is God the Father. The tenants are the Jews—especially the Pharisees. The servants are the prophets and the Son is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Other items include the tower being the theocracy of Israel and the winepress being the priesthood, though these items don’t seem to be as universally accepted as the previous ones, and perhaps don’t bear much on the message of the parable.
So what happens in this parable?
The tenants seem to be a rebellious and selfish lot of individuals. They have no regard for the landowner. They don’t want to give him what he is due.
The landowner sends his servants to collect what is rightfully his and the tenants reject them. Some were beaten, others stoned, and some were killed.
The landowner sent his son. Surely the tenants will have some regard for his own son. The tenants kill the son.
This isn’t an arbitrary murder. It is motivated by wanting what the son had—what was rightfully his. The tenants wanted his inheritance.
“If we kill him, then what was his will be ours. We can keep this sweet deal that we have.”
But Jesus asks, “What do you think the landowner will do now? What will he do when he comes in person?”
Those listening replied, “He will give those wicked men exactly what they deserve, and it is not going to be a pretty sight. Then he will rent the vineyard out to other tenants who will give him what is due.”
On the allegorical side, we have been introduced to new shepherds for Israel and opened the gates for the Gentiles to be in a good relationship with the landowner.
Now consider how Jesus homes in on the religious leaders. This is from The Message.
Jesus said, “Right—and you can read it for yourselves in your Bibles:
The stone the masons threw out
is now the cornerstone.
This is God’s work;
we rub our eyes, we can hardly believe it!
“This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life. Whoever stumbles on this Stone gets shattered; whoever the Stone falls on gets smashed.”
It is at this point that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were sure that Jesus was talking about them. This part you didn’t have to figure out. God’s kingdom will be taken from you and given to people who will live as God’s people.
Ouch! If they could have arrested Jesus right then they would have done it but the people would not stand for it. Jesus taught with authority. The people considered him a prophet. Some were already hailing him as the Messiah. They were stuck having to listen to him.
Before we move beyond this point, we should not that all manuscripts do not have that last verse. It is the one that reads:
And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.
That sounds like bad news across the board. It might be the ultimate lose-lose scenario, or not. For there is an interpretation on the first part of this phrase which is very much good news and is in sync with the audience to whom this parable was delivered.
Whoever falls on this stone will be broken. What does that mean? It could mean that this is the stone that breaks hardened hearts. It could be the only way that the self-righteous could come to accept Jesus as Lord. Brokenness prepares the heart for redemption.
On the other hand, it could be that it is just typical Hebrew parallelism. That is say something one way and then say something that means the same thing another way. It’s the walk on the right side of the road; do now walk on the left sort of syntax that we see frequently in the Psalms and other Old Testament writings. We see it very clearly in verses 16 & 17 of John’s gospel.
Realize in this interpretation at the end of the Parable of the Tenants, that this is the lose-lose scenario. Fall on the stone or let it fall on you and you are toast either way. That could be it.
I think for this age, it leans more towards be broken in human spirit so that we can receive God’s Holy Spirit by acknowledging Christ as Lord. That is exactly what the Pharisees needed. They needed to give up their self-righteousness and come to Jesus as the broken men that they truly were.
The good news is that Jesus receives the broken. He calls out to the weary and heavily burdened. He came not to condemn but to save. But some reject. Some rebel. Some want God and Jesus out of the way and out of their lives.
There is a concept that I call anchoring. An anchor is set so that we do not drift away. Anchors can be good things. We sing, On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. That’s a good anchor.
But sometimes we adopt a position or strategy or even a doctrine. It may have developed in a moment or over the course of years. We may have heard a fantastic sermon or done a biblical study that hit home. It could be anything, but it is something that we believe. It may or may not be true and if we continue to learn, we may update our doctrine or outright have a change of heart and mind so long as we have a teachable spirit.
God wants us to grow and grow in his grace, where we may fail time and time again; yet, through confession and an absolute assurance of his pardon, we get back in our race of faith.
But sometimes, we find ourselves defending a position, or a mindset, or a doctrine. The more we defend it, the more we become anchored to it. Logic and emotion combined and produce anchoring. The more we become anchored to it, the less we want to learn, because learning may invite change—and we don’t want to change.
We are comfortable in our way of thinking. Sometimes, that is a great thing. There are some thoughts and beliefs that I am anchored to and will not change. For instance:
God is good! I’m not giving that up.
God loves me. Sometimes that seems hard to believe, but in the worst of times, I will hold fast to this. I am anchored to it.
How about, God created. It didn’t all just happen. It didn’t all just come out of nowhere without something divine kicking it off. Now how long it took—how long a day in Genesis was—well I am not anchored to a 24-hour day.
The Pharisees were smart people. They memorized much of the Old Testament. They knew the law and where it seemed that there were gaps in the law, they came up with their own rules and regulations and made the people comply with them as if God was the author.
They defended their rules and regulations and their way of life and became anchored to them. God told them to have no other gods, but what if your own version of godly living becomes your god.
Why did the religious leaders want to kill Jesus? He was taking away their god. He was busting up this whole religion business and bringing people to right standing through relationship. The whole story of how we would come to this right relationship was unfolding before their eyes—not yet complete—but already sending tremors through the comfort zones of those anchored to religion.
The religious leaders did not want the one true God because he was not made in their own image. The Pharisees and the Sanhedrin did not want to be the tenants in the vineyard; they felt like they were the owners. And if the son of the landowner came to set things right, they would kill him.
Make no mistake about it, this was an in-your-face parable for the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. The son had not only come in the parable, but he was the one delivering the parable and he was messing with the establishment.
The religious leaders were looking at Jesus as a rebel when all the while they were the rebels. They are the ones rebelling against God. They are the wicked tenants.
Jesus will hit them with another parable where they are the primary target audience, but we will keep that for another time.
Today, I ask that we examine how many rules and regulations and personal preferences are creeping into our relationship with God. How many things are there that we are comfortable with and that we give equal status with God?
Of course our initial answer is that there is nothing, notta, no thing or practice that we hold in equal status with God. Good! Are we willing to confirm that?
How many people have left one congregation for another because they didn’t like the pastor, or the color of the carpet, or that newfangled music, or words on the wall. Sometimes people leave because the words are projected on the wall instead of transmitted onto huge video screens.
We are people who are supposed to worship God, serve God, and grow in grace. A whole bunch of this gets wrapped up in loving one another. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
But sometimes, we let things get in the way of worshiping God and serving God and when we continue down this path, we surely are not growing in God’s grace.
I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.
I can’t believe in a God who would not send people to hell.
I can’t believe in a God who would let homosexuals in the church.
I can’t believe in a God who would not let homosexuals in the church.
I can’t believe in a God who lets his church host an Easter Egg Hunt.
I can’t believe in a God who would not let his church host an Easter Egg Hunt.
I can’t believe in a God who lets people raise their hands in worship.
I can’t believe in a God who won’t let his people raise their hands in worship.
I can’t believe in a God who ministers to prostitutes and drug addicts.
I can’t believe in a God who does not minister to prostitutes and drug addicts.
I can’t believe in a God who lets his people smoke cigarettes and watch Captain Kangaroo.
I can’t believe in a God who won’t let his people smoke cigarettes and watch Captain Kangaroo.
I am intentionally including the mundane and the absurd on this lengthy litany because any of these things can get in the way of our relationship with God. Any of these beliefs can become as important as God if we let them.
We all have personal preferences and pet peeves, but when they become more important than loving one another or having ears to hear when God is speaking to us or getting absurd in our behavior—God hit me with lighting if you don’t want me to run Billy Jo Bob out of the church—then we have become the wicked tenants in the vineyard.
We know the truth. God loves us more than we can imagine. How will we respond? Will we respond by loving God in every way that we can or will some of our pet peeves, personal doctrines, pious policies get in the way?
Our human nature often gets in the way of enjoying the relationship with God. Sometimes we want to be the landowner even if only in a small way or in a few things; but we are the tenants. We are the stewards. Everything in this world was created by God and belongs to God. We put things to use, govern resources, practice stewardship but we are the tenants.
We wrestle sometimes with being a friend of God and being the tenant, but this is not a dichotomy. This should cause no dissonance. God is almighty, holy, righteous, good, forgiving, redemptive, and his primal nature is love. I am glad that he is the landowner. I am not up to the job just yet. I have not been made for that job.
I am being shaped in the image and likeness of his Son. I am a joint heir with his Son. I am a friend of God. But I am not God and neither are my pet peeves or personal doctrines or my pious policies. My religion is not my God. God wants a relationship with me where we are friends not in competition for sovereignty.
This week, do some personal inventory. See what thinking or beliefs or thoughts or attitudes that we have that get in the way of our relationship with the one true God.
See where religion is getting in the way of relationship.
See if we are producing the good fruit that God desires.