Gospel Text, Matthew 21:33-46
Let’s track the plot in Matthew 21. Jesus enters Jerusalem in a mock royal procession. Jesus enters the temple and attacks the commercial system that undergirds the institution. Jesus attacks “bad religion,” the institutional collaboration, cowardice, and corruption at the heart of the temple system. At the same time, he heals the blind and the lame—the least, the lost and the little ones, the last in the earthly kingdom. Jesus is accosted by the authorities who have had a chance to develop a strategy. Since he is not officially a rabbi and does not represent a particular “school,” they test his authenticity (assuming that he has none). Jesus outflanks them with his question about John’s baptism.
Jesus turns the question against them and puts them in a difficult political and theological bind. He exposes their “bad religion.” He follows that up with the little parable of the two sons (as opposed to the big parable of the two sons in Luke 15).
Jesus then continues with the parable of the vineyard, which is really much more of an allegory than a parable. That is today’s text. “Distinctive to this parable,” Emerson Powery writes on workingpreacher.org, “was Jesus’ clear allusion to Isaiah’s own parable about a love-song for a planted vineyard (cf. Isaiah 5). In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus tied together broader themes in order to critique the temple leadership responsible for proper care of the people of God, Israel.” This is the third response to the challenge about Jesus’ authority, and all three refer to Israel as the vineyard.
Malina and Rohrbaugh describe the social and economic setting and assumptions of the parable. “This parable…portrays a situation well known to those living in Galilee, that is, an absentee landowner living outside the country. If, after sending two sets of servants, the landowner sends his son, the tenant farmers might assume that the owner was dead and that the son was the only remaining obstacle to seizure of the land. But the owner is alive.” [Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (p. 133). Kindle Edition.]
This is very much a “gotcha” parable. When Jesus asks, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Notice that Jesus does not announce the death sentence on the tenants. The chief priests and the elders of the people respond to the question and therefore condemn themselves. This is precisely how prophetic parables work (remember the Parable of the Ewe Lamb that Nathan tells David — “you are the man!”). They question him about his legitimate authority. He turns the tables and makes it clear that they have abused their authority and squandered the stewardship of the vineyard.
Everyone listening to Jesus would have made a connection to the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5. The youtube talk by Ched Myers is an excellent discussion of the parable in this regard (see https://youtu.be/Nq5JMCCAQ7s). There is a direct connection from this parable to the vineyard parables in Jeremiah 12 and Isaiah 5—our first lesson for today. In those texts there are echoes of the Garden of Eden and the tragedy of the failed human takeover of the garden. The Tower of Babel is the final act in that failed attempt and the lens through which we should read the whole primeval history.
We don’t trust the owner to give us what we need. We’d rather scheme and take it by force. In the garden, the man and woman take what would have been given to them in the end. It’s worth connecting back to the previous vineyard parable in Matthew. The owner is generous. Perhaps the tenants wanted to keep it to themselves and didn’t want the owner to be so generous. Everyone knows how the previous vineyard story turned out. The result was the Babylonian Exile. There is a warning in this parable. Keep up the current behavior and the result will be the same—another exile. This is precisely what happened after the Jewish revolt in the late 60’s. The parable also has clear allusions to Jerusalem in the beginning—the wall, the moat, the pleasant planting.
We serve at the pleasure of the vineyard owner. It is, however, so easy to convince ourselves that we can do a better job managing the property. Here’s an illustration—an oldie, but a goodie. The pastor visited a farmer in his field. “You and the Lord have done pretty well on this plot,” the pastor observed. “Yup,” replied the farmer. “But, Reverend, you shoulda seen the place when the Lord had it by himself!” Too often that’s our approach to life in this world.
When we say ‘my church”, perhaps we should be a bit nervous. Whose church is it anyway? Whose neighborhood is it, anyway? Whose world is it, anyway? And who suffers when we act like it all belongs to us (and not to them)?
What will happen if the leaders don’t listen? That’s where Jesus shifts from the vineyard to the stone yard. He quotes from Psalm 118 and Daniel 2. The Daniel passage is a vision of the Stone which is God’s anointed. “And why is that an interpretation of the parable? Because the Stone and the Son are the same. The Son the farmers rejected is vindicated when the owner comes and destroys them and gives the vineyard to someone else. The Stone the builders rejected is vindicated when it goes in place at the top of the corner. And–just as in English the letters of the word ‘Son’ are the same as the letters of the word ‘Stone’, with two more added, so in Hebrew, by coincidence, the letters of the word ben (son) are the same as those of the word eben (stone), with one more added.” [Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 80). SPCK. Kindle Edition.]
Remember that the Jerusalem leaders are what we might call “triumphalists,” what Martin Luther would call “theologians of glory.” Like all triumphalists, the Jerusalem elite expect the first to be first and the last to be last. They expect God to ratify and underwrite their power, position, and privilege. And they will do whatever is necessary to keep it that way—including cooperating in the judicial murder, first of John the Baptist, and then of Jesus. The whole program of Matthew twenty-one is to ridicule and disrupt and subvert their closed, triumphalist system. Triumphalism is always fundamentally authoritarian and violent.
In that context, it is quite credible that when presumed privilege is challenged, there is often a violent response. Of course, we can see this at many points in the history of racism in the United States. I would refer you to information on lynching, for example, in Sherilynn Ifill’s excellent book, On the Courthouse Lawn.
Remember that all of this is headed toward the parable of the great judgment in Matthew 25. In that parable, Jesus is present in the least, the last and the lost. Jesus calls them his sisters and brothers. The first move of faith is to see myself as one of the least, the last, and the lost—and to trust that by God’s grace in Jesus, I have been made first, that I can embody Christ, and that in all of this I can be one of the found.
“The issue is not fundamentally one of ‘leadership,’” writes Ira Brent Diggers on workingpreacher.org, “although the conflict takes that particular form in this week’s story. The issue is one of rendering to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). For anyone called by God to a particular ministry–namely everyone–there is the temptation to claim ownership of that ministry, to confuse service with entitlement.” To confuse service with entitlement – to what degree does that describe my ministry, or my congregation’s ministry, or my denomination’s ministry?
And how will we respond when that sense of entitlement comes under attack? “The first instinct of most Christians,” writes Robert Farrar Capon, “after they have smiled indulgently at the preacher’s charmingly easygoing concept of salvation, is to nail him to the wall for knocking the props out from under divine retribution for nasty deeds. They do not want grace, they want law. Like the stupid tenants in the parable, they try to stop the coming of the paradoxical Power that alone can keep them in business, and they take their refuge in a lot of prudential nonsense that only insures their going out of it.” [Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 5883-5887). Kindle Edition.]
First Reading, Isaiah 5:1-7
Through the prophet, the LORD sings a song of tragic love for the house of Israel and the people of Judah (verse 7). It is a song of the vineyard and perhaps resembles the love songs of harvest time sung by people of the region for generations. The vinedresser does all the right things to produce a wonderful harvest. In the end, however, he gets nothing more than he would have gotten without the digging and hewing, the planting and weeding.
In the second stanza of the song, we discover that the LORD is the vinedresser and Israel and Judah are the vineyard. The (di)vinedresser pleads with the audience. What more could I have done? The answer is clear. The vinedresser has done all that was necessary for an excellent crop. The fault must, therefore, lie with the vineyard itself.
In the third stanza, the love song becomes an allegory of the destruction of Jerusalem. While the Babylonian exile perhaps remained in the future, Isaiah’s listeners knew what was at stake. “The parable is addressed to the people of Jerusalem and Judah (Isaiah 5:3),” Christopher Hays writes on working preacher.org, “some time in the late 8th century. The cataclysm of Zion’s destruction was still more than a century away (586 bce), but the fall of the northern kingdom and its capital Samaria in 721 was fresh in everyone’s mind.” The protective thicket and boundary walls are removed and broken down. What remains is a dry and barren wasteland.
The final verse describes the expected fruit and the experienced disappointment. The produce should have been justice but turned out to be bloodshed. The harvest should have been righteousness but was rather the cry of the dispossessed. On workingpreacher.org, Terence Fretheim writes, “The ‘bloodshed’ refers to abusive practices that bleed the poor to death. The “cry” refers to their anguished response.” The Hebrew of these phrases is a clever wordplay that is not reproduced in most English translations.
It is important to note that Isaiah is describing what may happen rather than what has happened. In this sense, the song is more of an apocalypse than a parable (as is the case with Jesus’ words in the gospel reading). So, this song is a prophetic warning while there is still time to change. That’s an important reminder in connecting this passage to the gospel reading – also a warning to the Jerusalem establishment of the time.
It is no accident that this song moves directly into the condemnation of those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land…” In verse ten we see that the produce of the vineyard is now next to nothing. The prophets of the 8th century uniformly condemned the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the common good. The subjects of the vineyard song are the “one percenters” of that time and place.
Second Reading, Philippians 3:4b-14
Paul continues to work out the conflict in the Philippian assembly. It may be that Euodia and Syntyche disagree about the role of Jewish ritual regulations in the life of the community. Paul is quite clear where he comes down. Circumcision as a requirement for community membership is here described as “mutilation” and having “confidence in the flesh.”
As always, we need to temper our temptation toward antisemitism when we read Paul. Christian Eberhardt puts it well on workingpreacher.org: “does the stark contrast not amount to a denigration of Judaism? No, it does not. The reason is that we should refrain from seeing Paul as a representative of a different religion. Paul was a Jew who was hoping to bring a new vision to his own religion. His goal was reforming it, to some degree like many of the prophets before him had tried. His reform program followed that of Jesus of Nazareth. It is clear that several important parameters of Judaism, such as righteousness or Torah obedience, were being redefined or questioned along the way.”
As part of his rebuttal, Paul gives us some of his religious resume. He was at the top of his class at every level – up to and including his righteousness under the law. He hit every mark. Yet, he regards all of these accomplishments as “rubbish” (the Greek work is closer to something like “crap”).
Righteousness comes from trusting in Christ. That trust entails following Jesus on the way of the cross, “becoming like him in his death.” Troy Troftgruben writes on workingpreacher.org, “Philippians 3:4b-14 is not so much about human striving as it is about a radical shift in perspective, redefining what ‘true gain’ is.”
The resume leads into the race. Paul describes the strenuous and vibrant adventure of the life of faith. He paints a vivid picture of the “now and not yet” character of the Christian journey. It is important to read verses 15 through 21 as part of this study. In those verses he describes the consequences of taking another path – the path of safety and security, of comfort and complacency.
The preacher can readily compare this path to that taken by all who would choose to keep their power, privilege, and position rather than to live out of God’s justice and mercy. Troftgruben puts it well: “In a world where the prevailing church culture may or may not look any different from prevailing business models or country club associations, where has knowing Christ compelled us to say “No” to cultural priorities in order to pursue relentlessly the things that truly matter?”
Ched Meyers study on “The Parable of the Tenants” (about 52 minutes) https://youtu.be/Nq5JMCCAQ7s. While this is a discussion of Mark’s report of the parable, it is highly useful.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Ifill, Sherrilyn A. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century. Beacon Press, 2007