Sermon: "The Vineyard and the Parable of the Tenants"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46
For the past few Sundays we have been examining parables which depict the immensity of God’s grace – the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, and the Parable of the Two Sons who were told to go work in the vineyard. Today we encounter another parable involving a vineyard – the Parable of the Tenants. At first glance, this parable, or more accurately, this allegory, may not appear to depict the immensity of God’s grace, but closer examination reveals otherwise.
Jesus addressed this allegory to the chief priests and elders as part of his continued response to their having questioned his authority; the allegory immediately follows the Parable of the Two Sons. One might say it adds insult to insult!
The chief priests and elders would have known Jesus was drawing from Isaiah’s writings. In Isaiah 5, we read:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Concerning the last verse, “There are remarkable plays on words found in the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “justice” is mishpat, and “bloodshed” is mishpakh. “Fairness” is zedakah, and “cries of distress” is zeakah” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah%205&version=TPT). By distorting a few letters, the word for “justice” becomes “bloodshed” and the word for “fairness,” or “righteousness,” becomes “cries of distress.” So too in real life – when justice is distorted, bloodshed results; when fairness is ignored, we hear cries of distress.
Jesus begins his allegory in a similar fashion to Isaiah: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower” (Matthew 21.33a; NRSV). The general interpretation sees the hedge or the fence as God’s Law and the watchtower as the Temple. In Jesus’ version, the landowner leased the vineyard to tenants and traveled to a foreign country. In Isaiah’s version, the vineyard yielded wild grapes. In contrast, in Jesus’ version, the yield must have been very good, for the tenants wanted to keep everything for themselves. When the landowner sent his servants to collect his produce, the tenants “beat one, killed another, and stoned another.”
The landowner then sent a larger delegation, and they were treated in the same manner. The landowner then sent his son. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute – why would he send his son? Shouldn’t he expect him to suffer the same fate?” It helps to remember this was an honor-based society – the son would have carried more honor than the servants; he would have been deemed worthy of greater respect. But the tenants “said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (Matthew 21.38-39; NRSV). A few minutes ago, we read the Ten Commandments, one of which stated, “Thou shalt not covet.” When we covet something, we actively plot to make it our own. The tenants coveted what belonged to the landowner, and their covetousness led to murder.
Jesus then asked, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and elders replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time” (Matthew 21.40-41; NRSV). That was a reasonable expectation. We might expect that Jesus would have said “yes,” but note that Jesus did not affirm their reply.
Jesus responded with a question: “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? (Matthew 21.42; NRSV). Jesus was quoting Psalm 118. Jesus then continued by saying, “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 21.43-44; NRSV).
Matthew tells us the chief priests and the Pharisees realized he was talking about them; they desired to arrest him and would have done so had the crowds not considered Jesus to be a prophet. They had to wait for a more opportune time.
In the allegory, the landowner is none other than God; the servants the landowner sent are the prophets who were beaten, killed, and stoned; the son is Jesus, God’s son. How are we to understand Jesus telling the chief priests and Pharisees the kingdom would be taken away from them and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom? We immediately think the Gentiles, but this would include all who believe in Jesus – even Jewish Christians.
Where do we see God’s grace as it relates to this parable? Contrary to the expectation that the landowner would put the miserable wretches to death, God did not send an avenging force to deal with those who killed the prophets. God sent his Son who endured the cross that we might have eternal life. The stone (Jesus Christ) the builders rejected has indeed become the cornerstone. When we truly encounter Jesus Christ, the stone the builders rejected, we are “broken to pieces.” Our world of vanity is shattered, and new light enters in.
Those who reject Christ are crushed for they choose to remain in their world of despair experiencing its crushing weight. God would have us experience new life. Rather than kill the miserable wretches in the vineyard, God offers forgiveness and new life! Jesus life, death, and resurrection through which we might attain new life is the ultimate picture of God’s grace. How tragic so many refuse to accept it! “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”