Today’s gospel is an immediate continuation of what we heard last week. Remember that Jesus is in the temple, it’s the day after Palm Sunday, it’s the day after he flipped over the tables and drove out the money changers, and now the chief priests and elders have confronted him to ask just exactly who he thinks he is. So instead of answering their question directly, Jesus has asked them a question in return and told the parable of the two sons; one who does the will of the father and one who does not.
Jesus has just finished telling these temple elite that tax collectors and prostitutes have more favor in the eyes of God than they do. He’s really not holding back on these guys. And then he says, “here, I’ve got another story for you” and launches into our passage today. We hear the well known parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus is doubling down on his criticism of these people that have come to challenge his authority in the temple, but is also foreshadowing what will happen in just a few short days after this encounter.
The parable of the wicked tenants is pretty straight forward in imagery. There’s a landowner who plants a vineyard. Then he hires people to do the work for him, and leaves. This was a very common experience in Jesus’ time. Most of the people listening to this probably either owned a vineyard or had worked in one at some point. They understood the social contract of tenant farmers and landowners and the meaning of this story…and I’m pretty sure those Jesus was directing this at weren’t too happy about it.
The parable takes an unexpected turn, a dark one that violates everything understood about the scenario. No one in their right mind would kill the slaves or worse the son of the landowner thinking they would get away with it. But it really is the perfect analogy for Israel, for God’s prophets, and ultimately for God’s son, Jesus, coming to the tenant farmers and being killed. The farmers are the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, who he has sent many of his prophets to and instead of heeding God’s word they have silenced the prophets.
So finally God has come in the flesh, Christ is manifest as God’s son, to bring the fulfillment of the law, of the contract with the landowner. And they kill the son all the same. This is Christ’s answer to the question of under who’s authority he’s doing these things in the Temple! He is clearly stating that he has come directly from God. And as the parable comes to its end, Jesus asks the elders what they think the landowner would do to the wicked tenants. Of course they say he should put them to death and give the land to better tenants.
I have to wonder if these chief priests understood it was about them when they answered that way, or if it was after they had answered that it dawned on them. Either way, one thing I want to point out here, because a lot of these parables are fiery and often steer us in a direction of seeing God as wrathful and vengeful, that Jesus isn’t the one who says that the wicked tenants should be put to death. God never says that they should be punished so severely. It is chief priests and elders who come up with that particular gem.
Historically, this passage has fueled and justified a lot of anti-Jewish doctrine and supersessionism. That is the doctrine that Jesus and Christians totally replace and supersede the Jewish people. Therefore it’s ok to kill them because they are no longer loved by God. The old wicked tenants have been replaced with the new good tenants. It’s important to acknowledge that because it is an entirely false reading and it is an evil distortion of the Gospel to justify bigotry and hatred.
Jesus isn’t speaking to all Jews when he tells this parable. He is answering a question from the chief priests and elders of the temple regarding his authority. The wicked tenants are the chief priests and the elders. They are the religious elite who have ignored the word of God through the prophets for generations. They are the temple leaders who are going to plot to have Jesus arrested and killed. This is criticism from a Jew to Jewish leaders.
Now while we may think of ourselves as the obvious good replacement tenants, we first need to consider whether we want that responsibility. I think there are two ways to look at this. The first is to say that the replacement tenants are other religious leaders, and it not becomes their job to pick up where the others have left off. In that case we can also see this as a warning and criticism of all religious leaders who will always fail at times and exhibit behaviors of the wicked tenants.
The second possible way of looking at this, as all of us being the new, and hopefully good tenants, is to put on our shoulders the responsibility of listening to God and bearing fruit from his vineyard. Do we appear to be doing that? Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God or perhaps the better question is what sort of fruit are we bearing?
Lest we get too smug for being the new tenants, we must remember that we are only here to work. The vineyard still belongs to God. If we are not good stewards, then we become the wicked tenants, or at least the bad or perhaps incompetent tenants. It is up to us, to work hard at listening for the call of God, listening for the direction of God, and discerning the will of God through the Gospel and the Holy Spirit that has been left to us.
And in the face of possible failure, as we consider how good we might be as replacement tenants, or tenants at all working in the God’s fields, remember also that when the wicked tenants ignore, stone, and kill the servants of the landowner, instead of sending soldiers, instead of responding with equal force, the landowner sends his son. The landowner sends his own son, unarmed, to speak to the tenants. The landowner reaches out with compassion, with care, with a vulnerability that offers the wicked tenants another chance.
This parable is of course Jesus’ continued press against the chief priests and elders of the temple. It is part of the same tense confrontation we started hearing about last week. It also serves as a reminder to us, not only that all of us need to consider what sort of tenants we are in God’s field, but also a particular reminder to religious leaders. Are we listening when the Holy Spirit speaks? Are we following the direction of the landowner’s son? Or are we ignoring the calls and arrogantly trying to claim the vineyard for ourselves? Sometimes we are the wicked tenants, sometimes we are the replacement tenants. But we are always in need of God’s grace, love, and mercy.