The similarities in our Isaiah and Matthew scriptures are undeniable, and yet these have striking differences. These scriptures use the agricultural imagery of a beautiful vineyard provided by a landowner who carefully prepared the ground, cultivated the soil, and planted the best grape seed. This landowner also anticipated a long-term, relational venture with the security of a fence and watchtower and the fore-thought of a wine press.
Isaiah describes a less than desired bounty for despite all the efforts only the sour, wild grapes grew. These were good for nothing, literally nothing; not for eating, not for pressing into grape juice, and not for further fermenting into wine.
In Isaiah, the landowner is God, the vineyard is the entire creation, and the planted seeds is all humans.
The intended bounty from us (summarizing the prophets with Micah 6:8) was justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. Thus, the intended harvest was justice and grace, compassion and mercy, and love and service. Unfortunately, the harvested bounty was sin (or self-centeredness), injustice, and violence whether individual, communal, or systematic.
God was (and is) disgusted with the state of the vineyard. Thus, God intends to destroy the whole in anger, but does not. God, in accordance with the Scriptures, is steadfast love, slow to anger, and always ready to turn from punishment. Thus, Jesus is teaching in the temple centuries afterwards.
But, I want to pause a moment for the context of this text in our worship differs from in the Gospel.
We have been engaging Jesus’ parables that utilize the image of a field/vineyard.
The Parable of the (Day) Laborers:
Jesus was speaking to the disciples prior to their journey to Jerusalem. The essential lesson is that it does not matter when an individual begins to labor for the Kingdom of God to Come. Similarly, it does not matter who a person is for we all deserve a just daily wage to ensure our basic need is met.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to begin the Passover. Christians recognize this arrival as ‘Palm Sunday’. Jesus arrives at the temple and ‘cleanses’ it by over-turning tables and chasing the corrupt money-changers and merchants from it.
Jesus begins to teach in the temple to those who are gathered, specifically the Pharisees, Scribes, and additional religious elite.
The Parable of the Two Sons:
A landowner requests that his sons go work in the field/vineyard. One son refused, but then does go. The other son commits, but then does not go. The essential lesson is that the ‘work’ in the field/vineyard is justice, compassion and mercy, love and service for all people whether the individual self-identifies as Christian, religious, or otherwise. Thus, it doesn’t matter how “messed up” we are, but rather about a pure heart.
These Pharisees, Scribes, and religious elite have not yet realized that Jesus is criticizing them.
So, Jesus shares another parable.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants/Landowner’s Son:
It was common practice in the Ancient Near East (ANE) for tenants to provide the landowner a portion of their harvest as rent. Since the quality of the harvest is not noted, it indicates no importance in the parable.
Similar to Isaiah, the landowner is God and the vineyard is the entire creation. However, instead of the humans being the grown grapes, we are the tenants.
The parable is about the tenants and their stewardship, their responsibilities, and their conduct. We, humans, have been given such stewardship of creation, its resources, and all within it. We, humans, have been given such stewardship of our energy, time, talents, and other resources.
But, how are we stewarding?
Are we willing to share?
Are we willing to pay our rent?
The ‘Wicked Tenants’ desired to hoard, not share, the land and the harvested bounty.
Slaves were sent to collect the agreed upon portion but were captured, beaten, and a few murdered.
The landowner chose to send his son, the heir, to collect the agreed upon portion expecting a different result, but the son was also captured, beaten, and murdered.
Jesus asked the religious elite about the appropriate response of the landowner. These religious elite responded culturally correct that the landowner shall come, get rid of the wicked tenants, and replace these with good tenants who will care for the vineyard and freely offer their agreed upon portion.
Jesus informs the religious elite, again, that the “sinners” will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them. It is in this ‘light-bulb’ moment that the religious elite realize they are the son that commits to work in the field but does not and the wicked tenant who mismanages the entire creation.
Again, these religious elite are displeased with Jesus, who continues to teach while turning the parable upside-down. Jesus reminds the religious elite that Scriptures foretell of the elite rejecting the cornerstone, which Christians consider to be Jesus the Christ.
We are the ‘Wicked Tenants’.
We have destroyed those children working for and towards the Kingdom of God to Come.
We will (and have) killed the divine Son of God, Jesus the Christ.
Jesus had previously questioned the religious elite regarding the authority of John the Baptist, which they did not answer for fear of the crowd who beloved him and regarded him as a prophet. These religious elite are similarly silenced for fear of the crowd who beloved Jesus and regarded him as a prophet, the Messiah, and/or the divine Son of God.
Thus, the religious elite stood there convicted while considering how to get rid of this Jesus.
We know the events of Holy Week. Jesus is arrested, beaten, crucified, murdered, and buried.
We also know that it concludes with Jesus defeating death itself with his resurrection.
Through this lens, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants/Landowner’s Son has another perspective. In addition to a parable teaching, it is a foretelling of the next several days.
I once read: Jesus was not crucified for being a nice guy.
The truth is Jesus was crucified for standing against those misusing positions of power and authority.
The truth is Jesus was crucified for criticizing the religious elite aligned with those not doing God’s Will.
The truth is Jesus was crucified for standing against the sour, wild grapes of sin, injustice, and violence.
The truth is Jesus was crucified for standing with the oppressed, under-privileged, and vulnerable.
The Gospel does not always sound like “good news”, but:
- Jesus, rooted in these truths, sought to warn and inform all people;
- God is steadfast love, slow to anger, and always eager to turn from punishment; and
- The vineyard has not yet been destroyed (and it will not be).
God sent Jesus, the divine Son, into the world for the sake of the vineyard and its people. Thus, Jesus continues to warn and inform all people holding a mirror before our eyes, in order to evaluate our own work in the field/vineyard, the grapes we are producing, and how we are stewarding the creation, humanity, and all the gifts God has given us.
May we produce the grapes of justice and grace, compassion and mercy, and love and service.
May we be the children working in the world
to bring forth God’s Kingdom to Come.
May we be the good tenants, the good stewards,
of all that God has rented to us.
The Scriptures were Isaiah 5: 1-7 and Matthew 21: 33-46.
Originally preached on 4 Oct. 2020 at Trinity Lutheran (Union City, Indiana).