The Unjust Tenants: Ownership or Stewardship?

Proper 27,  October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46 

Τoday’s gospel is one of a whole series of parables of judgment from Matthew’s gospel.  We had the Parable of the Two Sons last week; today the wicked tenants; then the wedding banquet, the talents, the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  The tone and message of each of these seems to be judgment.  Behind each of them lies the threat of God’s rejection.

I don’t like these parables, I have to be honest.  I don’t like the strident tone that Matthew’s Jesus seems to take. I don’t like the theological implications of these parables.  Perhaps I’m a fuzzy liberal, but I believe we have heard and internalized far too much of the judgmental God, of the God who is willing, nay almost eager, to throw people into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Where do we find good news in these parables? We looked at one of them at the layreaders’ conference a couple of weeks ago, and it proved challenging to know how to begin to preach them.

This parable is particularly problematical in another way. The vineyard is an ancient image for Israel.  There are several references in the Old Testament to Israel as God’s vineyard.  It would be easy to misunderstand the parable so that the wicked tenants refer to the Jews, and that God has taken away the kingdom from the Jews, who killed the Son, to give it to the more worthy Christians.  Unfortunately this passage has been used by the church over the centuries to underwrite a theology that maintains that God has rejected his chosen people –  a theology that opened the door for all manner of persecution of the Jews.

We need to read more carefully.  For in the parable it is the vineyard, planted, tended and beloved of God, that is Israel, the Jewish people.  The wicked tenants are the religious establishment, those who have been given charge over God’s chosen people, and specifically that group of authorities who always crop up in the gospels in conflict with Jesus: the scribes and the Pharisees.  The original context for this parable, and indeed for all of the parables of judgment we will be hearing this Fall, is Jesus’s ongoing conflict with the Pharisees.

It was a conflict that intensified at the end of his ministry.  We are now in his final week. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem in triumph, cheered by an enthusiastic crowd.  He marched into the temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers – and now his language about the Pharisees is becoming harsher.  Remember what we heard last week: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  And this to a religious elite, who consider themselves particularly holy, separate from the common sinners. Ooph, that’s got to hurt!
And today, picking up the Old Testament language of God’s vineyard, Jesus is naming them as unjust tenants, who tend God’s people for their own gain, and do not yield fruits to God; who kill the prophets whom God sends to challenge and correct them.

All through these chapters of Matthew (and we will hear more examples in the weeks to come) we hear Jesus burning with a white-hot anger against the self-righteousness and injustice of the religious establishment.  These parables go to the heart of how very radical Jesus’s message was.  He did not come to found a new religion, but to overturn the basic foundations of religion itself: the separation between clean and unclean, between holy and secular, between saints and sinners.  He came to proclaim a message of God’s love for all people, God’s good will and acceptance of all people.  For Jesus, God is not confined to the temple and the religious life and the righteous people.   God is present in the world, among his people, even and maybe especially among those where you would least expect it.  That is a message that is so radical that it threatens to overthrow all the ancient and venerable human institutions of religion.

If that is what Jesus’s message is about, then this parable is not about distinguishing Jews and Christians, or even Moslems and Christians, or any supposedly bad from any supposedly good religion – it is a challenge to all of our religions equally.  The scribes and the Pharisees Jesus is attacking were not just a particular first-century Jewish sect.  They are with us always, they are part of any religion: the tendency to separate the world into the holy insiders (that’s us) and the sinners, the ungodly, those whom we imagine God does not care about, because they don’t deserve it.

The face of those whom we imagine to be beyond the reach of God’s love will vary from time to time, and from preacher to preacher: the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, or those who don’t go to church, or the gays, or the Muslims, or the trailer park boys, or the homeless, or the addicted. Wherever there is religion, the Pharisees will always be with us, drawing a line somewhere between the righteous and the sinners.  Indeed, I would go further: there is a Pharisee inside each one of us, as we all have the tendency to draw the line somewhere.

One of the commentaries I looked at had a helpful insight: that the parable is about ownership. The real problem is a confusion of ownership. The tenants have been so long in possession that they have come to think of the vineyard as their own, to do what they like with. The claim of the distant owner has come to feel like an unjust imposition. And so they feel justified in mistreating his servants who have come to collect the fruits; even in killing the son.

It seems to me that this insight is true of our lives: in several respects, in fact:

we could talk about our relationship to the earth in these terms. How, after centuries of assuming that we owned this planet, that it was ours to exploit for our own comfort and convenience, we are beginning to discover the old wisdom of stewardship: that this is God’s earth, that we have it in charge to tend it and care for it.  We have this charge in order to bear fruits, better fruits than the fruits of consumerism.

We could talk about our own lives in the same way.  One of the central tenets of our individualistic age is that our lives are our own: we are free and beholden to no one to do what we like with our lives.  And certainly that is a good thing, compared with the class system it has replaced, which assumed that some people were there in order to serve other people.  No one wants to go back to that.  But what is maybe a bit more problematic with our modern notion is that our lives have no other purpose than to please ourselves.  Here our faith has something to say: that our lives are not our own, in the sense of being our property to spend merely for our own gratification.  They are a trust from God.  They are lent to us for a while to tend and care for, with the ultimate purpose of bearing fruit for God.

This is a profoundly and even uncomfortably counter-cultural notion.  Even we Christians have so imbibed the spirit of the age that we may find it uncomfortable; and in society at large it is likely to be met with fierce resistance, as a challenge to the absolute freedom we hold so dear.  And yet there is a weariness also with a freedom that has no other purpose than self-indulgence, a longing for a sense of a higher meaning to our lives.  How do we keep ourselves focussed on the notion that we hold our lives in stewardship from God, in order to bear fruit; and how do we hold up to others the promise and blessing of this insight?

I’d like to bring this back to the theme of religion.  The sin of the Pharisees was to imagine that the religion they served was about them: that it belonged to them, to manage and control in their own interests, rather than a trust that they had received from God in order to bear fruits of mercy and compassion among the people.  I would suggest to you that this is precisely the challenge we face as a church today.  We have gotten in the habit of thinking that the purpose of the church is to fulfil our religious needs; or at least this is the unconscious assumption that drives a lot of our behaviour in the church.  We can get caught up in seeing that our own preferences are being catered to: we want to sit in our own pew, we want to have the kind of worship experience that speaks to us, we want to hear the music we like.  In the worst case, when we don’t get what we want, we feel justified in getting up and leaving.  But what we have lost sight of, of course, is that this is not our church.  It’s the ownership question.  The purpose of our Christian life is not to make ourselves feel good.  We are not the owners of a private club; we are stewards of God’s church, which is part of God’s mission to the world.  And so the reason we are here is ultimately to cultivate fruits for God.  What do those fruits look like?  Well, you remember the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  We look to live out these fruits in our own lives, but also in the lives of the community around us.

This is the biggest challenge facing the Anglican church today, across the country and I dare say here in the parish of Wilmot.  We usually talk about learning to be a missional church again: a church that is not so inward looking, concerned with its own needs, but which learns to re-engage with the community around us with new focus.

This is not an easy process.  There are no easy answers.  But the place to start is to remind ourselves, again and again, until the knowledge begins to change us, that we are not the owners here.  We are tenants in God’s vineyard.
One final insight into this passage: as much as it seems to contain a harsh judgment (“He will put those wretches to a miserable death”), when you think about it, the parable tells of the remarkable patience and forbearance of God.  In fact, the patience of this owner in the face of these uncooperative tenants stretches credibility beyond the breaking point.  But notice one significant detail: it is not Jesus, it is the Pharisees who pronounce judgement on the wicked tenants.  It is their logic, not the logic of the gospel, that brings such a harsh judgment into the story.

This is not in the end a story about judgment.  And it’s certainly not a story about Jews and Christians.  It is a story about stewardship instead of ownership; a story that teaches us to see all that we have – our planet, our very lives, our church – not as things simply to enjoy for our own gratification, but as a trust from God with the task of bearing fruit for others.

God has blessed us and tended our lives with infinite patience and forbearance.  May he grant us the grace to learn to bear fruit every more joyfully and abundantly.