Ordinary Time 27
10. Wicked Tenants
"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. Then he leased it to tenants and went
to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent
his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the
tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and
stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the
first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent
his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' 38But when
the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the
heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' 39So they
seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now
when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those
tenants?" 41They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a
miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will
give him the produce at the harvest time."
42Jesus said to them, "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
43"Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken
from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the
kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to
pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his
parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They
wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they
regarded him as a prophet.
The parable is found in Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19 as
well as in Matthew. Question is raised as to whether the parable
is given in its original form as told by Jesus or whether it is
embellished with additional details from the experience of the
church after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The issue is in part concerned with one's belief about
predictive prophecy. Did Jesus have prescience about what would
happen to the church after his death, or did the writers of the
parable adapt it to conform to events which they experienced and
that fit with the original parable?
The parable as it is given can be used as an allegory. Its
details can be assigned to events and parties in the Old
Testament. The concluding verses may be given added strength if
the gospels according to Matthew and Luke were written later than
70 A.D. as many authorities believe. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem was
conquered by the Romans after an attempted revolt and the temple
was destroyed. After that happened Christianity was increasingly
considered as separate from Judaism and no longer just as a sect
within Judaism. Thus possibly v. 43 in Matthew and v. 18 in Luke
which are not in Mark (who probably wrote the gospel prior to 70)
were added by the writers in light of the events that happened
about the time that they wrote their Gospel account.
Context of the Gospel
The parable is another that draws upon a parallel between
the image of a vineyard and the kingdom of God. It continues the
response of Jesus to the question about his authority and his
rejection by the Chief Priests and scribes.
It was increasingly evident to Jesus that he and his
followers would have to organize separately from the established
institutions of Judaism. He no doubt was disappointed with the
developments and still hoped that he could persuade the
leadership to change and accept his vision of the kingdom. With
the intensifying of the opposition, he held less and less hope
that such would be possible and believed that his death was
imminent, as in fact was the case.
Context of the Lectionary
The First Lesson. (Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20) The reading
gives the essentials of the ten commandments. This is probably
the fence referred to in Matthew 21:33. Laws set boundaries for
behavior in a way similar to fences which set boundaries to
prevent trespassing of territory.
The Second Lesson. (Philippians 3:4b-14) Paul gives his
autobiographical confession of his background in Judaism and his
commitment to follow Christ despite the suffering it has cost
Gospel. (Matthew 21:33-46) The parable is of the wicked
tenants who tried to obtain possession of the vineyard by
destroying the servants and the son who were sent to collect the
return due the owner from it.
Psalm. (Psalm 19) The psalm is an affirmation of the
response of the earth to the Creator. The psalmist proceeds to
assert the value of the law and the reward offered to those who
observe it faithfully.
Context of Related Scriptures
Psalm 118:22 ff. Ä The stone that the builder rejected.
Isaiah 8:14-15 Ä A reference to the stone of stumbling upon
which many will fall and be broken.
Daniel 2:34-35 Ä The stone that breaks an idol and becomes a
mountain to fill the whole earth.
Malachi 2:7-8 Ä False priests by their instruction cause
persons to stumble.
Matthew 23:2-3 Ä The scribes and Pharisees do not practice
what they teach.
Matthew 23:34 Ä Prophets sent are killed, flogged and
John 15:1-7 Ä The image of the true vine and the vine
Acts 4:11 Ä Another use of the stone that was rejected.
Romans 9:32-33 Ä Paul refers to the stone over which people
Hebrews 11:36-38 Ä Mention of the prophets who were stoned,
sawn in two and killed by the sword.
Characteristics of the Parable
The parable as noted is more of an allegory than the usual
parables of Jesus. The characters and the events have reference
to the history of Israel as interpreted by either Jesus or the
It is clear that God is the owner of the vineyard. That he
was an absentee landlord might suggest that he was not perceived
as active in the intertestamental period as he was earlier. The
writers of the New Testament understood time to have certain
propitious moments when God revealed himself in history through
mighty acts. The time was ripe for harvest when John the Baptist
and Jesus appeared on the scene.
In the interim between the old and new covenantal periods
the people of Israel were left to tend the vineyard. They were
the tenants. They were accountable to God to produce fruits of
the kingdom. Repeatedly through Israel's history the people
failed and had to be redeemed. The history of the Old Testament
is replete with a cycle of redemption by God, apostasy by the
judgment through the events of history which brought them to
repentance, and restoration through God's intervening grace.
The servants who were sent from time to time to call the
tenants of the vineyard to accountability were the prophets. The
various servants in the parable sent to call the tenants to
accountability represent the prophets of the Old Testament. A
distinction was made between the earlier prophets, such as Isaiah
and Jeremiah, and the latter or minor prophets. Tradition says
that Isaiah was killed by being sawn asunder. Jeremiah was
mistreated in various ways.
Jesus the son is the heir to the vineyard. The slightly
different wording of Matthew when compared to Mark may refer to
the crucifixion of Jesus outside of Jerusalem. Matthew says the
son was cast out of the vineyard and killed whereas Mark says he
was killed and then cast out.
Matthew also elaborates the consequences of what the owner
did when he came. He first puts the words in the mouth of Jesus'
opponents when Jesus posed the question of what the owner would
do. Mark simply has the question posed and answered. Matthew
adds that the tenants will suffer a miserable death, perhaps
aware of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Matthew adds v.
43 to reassert that the kingdom would be taken away from his
opponents and given to a nation producing the fruits of the
kingdom. That other nation would be the church which included
Gentiles as well as Jews.
Precis of the Parable
The story line of the parable proceeds along lines which
draw on two images from the Old Testament which appear frequently
in the New Testament. The first is that of the vineyard. An
absentee landlord, which was common enough at the time to be well
known, left tenants in charge of the vineyard. They were
sharecroppers who would give a portion of the crop as payment of
rent to the owner.
The tenants conspired to take over the vineyard, assuming
either that the landlord was so far removed that he would never
return or anticipating that he would die in his absence. When
his servants came to collect the fruits due the owner they killed
them so that they could keep all the fruit for themselves. That
happened repeatedly in Israel's history.
Finally the owner sent his son, assuming the tenants would
not have the audacity to kill his heir. The tenants saw this as
their opportunity to gain full ownership of the vineyard. If
they killed the son, no heirs would survive and they would become
the outright owners of the land.
The tenants misjudged the owner. He returned and wreaked
judgment on the tenants. He put them to death and replaced them
with new, more faithful tenants.
The second image from the Old Testament is that of the stone
of stumbling. The very stone which they regarded as a scandal
becomes the cornerstone of a new building. That was perceived by
the early church as the replacement of the destroyed temple.
Jesus became the cornerstone of the new temple. It was the
church, a living temple composed of believers, and not a physical
temple confined to Jerusalem.
Thesis: Persons reject the kingdom and its agents at their
Theme: The death of God's servants does not frustrate God's
purposes but brings punishment to those responsible for it.
Key Words in the Parable
1. "Landowner." (v. 33) God is the landowner. All the
earth and its riches are his. Persons occupying the earth are
only tenants, not owners. They are accountable to God for their
use of the earth.
2. "Fence." (v. 33) The limit set to God's kingdom is the
law which was given to Moses. The law established the boundaries
for Israel as God's people.
3. "Dug a Wine Press." (v. 33) A wine press was used to
extract the juice from the grapes. Thus the product of the fruit
could be stored. The press was set up so that as the grapes were
pressed the juice ran down to the bottom where it was collected
4. "Watchtower." (v. 33) Some understand the watchtower to
be the temple which was to safeguard the teaching and observance
of the law. It may also have included the synagogue.
5. "Leased it to Tenants." (v. 33) An absentee landowner
in Palestine would retain ownership of the vineyard but would
lease it to others on a sharecropping basis.
6. "Sent His Slaves ... Other Slaves." (vv. 34 and 36) The
prophet's function is to speak forth the word of God. It is
likely that the various slaves were the former and latter
prophets of the Old Testament period.
7. "Collect His Produce." (v. 34) The usual arrangement
was for the landowner to receive one-quarter of the crop at the
time of harvest. This was the rent paid by the tenants.
8. "Sent His Son." (v. 37) Jesus did not generally ascribe
to himself the title of the Son of God. He more frequently
referred to himself as the Son of Man. The church, however, did
call him the Son of God and understood him to be sent by God.
9. "Other Tenants." (v. 41) The other tenants were the
church which included both Gentile and Jewish Christians.
10. "Stone ... Rejected." (v. 42) Earlier the stone that
was rejected was the message of the prophets. Now it becomes
Christ who was rejected and cast down. After his resurrection he
became the center of the church.
11. "Becomes the Cornerstone." (v. 42) The cornerstone
holds the building together. It may have been a keystone in the
middle of an arch rather than the corner that ties two walls
together. In any event it is crucial to the structure. Without
it the edifice would collapse.
1. The Earth is the Lord's. The earth was established by
God with conditions necessary to support life. Some
environmentalists blame the Judeo-Christian doctrines for the
exploitation of the earth which results in the depletion of
natural resources and degradation of the environment through
pollution and other abuses. They contend that the belief that
persons are to have dominion over the earth allowed these
actions. It can be argued, however, that the Judeo-Christian
belief is not that persons are to have unlicensed dominion over
the earth. They are to exercise stewardship over it. They are
temporary tenants who are to tend it as a vineyard. If cared for
properly it will produce abundant fruit and sustain life. They
are not to abuse or misuse it for immediate gain at the expense
of future yield. The environment is created by God with amazing
recuperative capacity. Good tenants assure that the bounds set
on the productivity of the earth do not exceed its possibilities
of continuing, life-sustaining productivity.
2. Freedom to Reject. Persons are created with the freedom
to reject God. They may reject his being and his message. The
rejection is not without consequences however. The universe has
a moral structure. If persons assume that they are in complete
control and run the world according to their own interests and
contrary to God's will, they suffer the effects of their actions.
Eventually the flouting of God's will brings destruction, and the
ultimate consequence is a miserable death, worse than the death
of the physical body. It is to miss the very meaning of life
3. Martyrdom. It is the nature of sin to hate anything
which judges it. To try to deny the message of judgment, those
who operate by self-interest, hoping thereby to escape the
message, will try to destroy the messenger. The true prophet who
speaks God's words of warning and judgment threatens people who
do not want to hear it. Because prophets deal with issues of
ultimate values, the attack against them will be most ferocious.
That is why religious wars and persecution of those who profess
differing religious values are often characterized by their
ferocity. If the values were not so important they would not
arouse people so. Those who stand for values of ultimate worth
and meaning should not be surprised if martyrdom is the
consequence. It has been so in the past and continues to be so.
4. Constant Reformation. When an institution gets so bad,
it either must be reformed or it will be destroyed and replaced.
The passing of the gospel from a Jewish exclusiveness to a
Christian inclusiveness and universality is one example of the
need for reformation or replacement. The sixteenth century
Reformation is another example of a need for change and the
passing of responsibilities to others when it appeared that the
medieval church was no longer open to the drastic changes needed.
As society was changing, new conditions required new adaptations.
New economic forces, new means of communication and new political
realities all led people to have a different understanding of
religious demands and this led to the Reformation.
The Reformation is not something simply to be celebrated.
It is a reminder that the church needs constant reformation or it
will cease to be a faithful servant. The church as a human
institution as well as a spiritual organism may be subject to the
tendency of all human institutions. They become extensions of
self interests. When they do, they either must go through a
painful reformation or be supplanted by others which are
vitalized by the Holy Spirit and produce fruits of the kingdom
1. Produce of the Harvest. (vv. 34, 41) What does God
expect as our response to his bounty toward us? What kind of
harvest should workers in his vineyard produce?
A. A Goodly Life. In personal life the Christian should
manifest the works of the Holy Spirit.
B. A Faithful Church. Support and encouragement of the
church in its fullest extension is another important fruit.
C. Social and Economic Justice. Working to bring God's
kingdom into being in the world at large is another way to
produce fruit for the harvest.
2. Treating His Slaves. (vv. 35-36) Prophetic voices often
lead to intense opposition because of their challenge to our
apathy and comfort. They call us to awaken to needs for change
and to undertake tasks that are difficult and may be dangerous.
A. Heed Their Voice. Listen receptively.
B. Test Their Message. Use the plumbline of scripture to
discern the true from the false.
C. Tolerate Their Zeal. Do not be too quick to condemn or
reject that which challenges the status quo, the conventional
wisdom, our own power and privilege.
D. Free Them for the Work. They are worthy of their hire.
3. Respect My Son. (v. 37) Many persons did not respect
Jesus in the days of his flesh. Many today also reject him
without really knowing and understanding him.
A. Know Him. Enter into his life through the scriptures and
personal encounter of him.
B. Grow into Him. Let his teachings and example permeate
and transform our lives.
C. Show Him. Empowered by his Spirit, act in all situations
as he would act today to show others who he is.
4. Responsible Tenants. (v. 41) This is an opportunity for
a stewardship sermon.
A. Use of Personal Gifts
B. Use of Wealth
C. Use of the Earth
5. A Stumbling Stone or the Cornerstone? (v. 42)
Contemporary society often finds the particularity of following
Christ a scandal. They find the idea of the resurrection of
Christ an impossibility. The relativism and toleration of
diversity rejects the exclusivity of Christian claims as
A. Is Christ Your Stumbling Stone?
B. The Uniqueness of Christ
C. The Centrality of Christ
D. Life Needs a Cornerstone
6. Amazing in Our Eyes. (v. 43) Worship helps to refocus
our wonder and awe at the amazing works of God.
A. Amazed at God's Acts in History
B. Amazed at God's Acts in Persons
C. Amazed at God's Acts in Today's World
Points of Contact
1. Human beings want to find meaning in their lives. They
are aware that they have some choice and some responsibility for
who they are and what they become. Psychiatrists meet people
with deep anxiety. They have a free-floating fear. It is not
directed to a specific cause of fear. It arises from the fear
that they are responsible for some cosmic meaning that they have
missed. They may fear that they are rejected by God when the
real cause may be their rejection of God, or at least an
unwillingness to put their trust in him. Finding God's favor and
responding with commitment may relieve that anxiety.
2. God does not approach people only once and give them
opportunity to respond. He is persistent and makes his approach
through various agents and means. Christians need various
for renewing their faith and commitment as they meet God's
repeated actions. The approach of God may come in various ways
at different stages in life. It may come in the confrontation to
decide on personal philosophy in adolescence. It may come in a
vocational choice in early adulthood. It may come in career
shifts throughout life. It may come again as one assumes
responsibility for a family. It may come in awareness of social
needs or injustices in the world. It may come at retirement and
the approaching end of life. Any crisis may call for a new
choice for returning to God fruits of the kingdom.
3. The battle against evil is not just between parties, as
between the wicked tenants and the landowner. It is also within
each of us. Each person has what is described as a dark side.
People are tempted to use means to obtain ends that are evil,
both in the means and the ends. Such means and ends need to be
branded for what they are. Unless they are repented they lead to
destruction. God's patience and mercy have limits. The limits
are set by the human rejection of God's overtures and not by the
character of God.
Points to Ponder
1. Punishment. The parable raises the issue of the nature
of God's punishment for disobedience and rejection of his will
and his agents. Is it an arbitrary act of wrath or is it so
built into the structure of being that the consequences follow as
an inevitable and natural consequence of our actions? Is the
punishment immediate and direct, or is it only evident as a
result of a process that takes time to work out? Or is the final
punishment outside of history, either at a person's death or at
some final outcome of history?
2. Other Nations. The nineteenth and early twentieth century
were characterized as an age of missionary activity on the part
of the European and North American churches. In the latter half
of this century mission efforts have declined among many of these
churches. Mission giving has decreased so that mission budgets
have had to be reduced. Fewer people volunteer to devote their
lives as missionaries. Some attribute the decrease to the
spending of local churches on their own projects: large
buildings, more facilities, more comfortable furnishings, more
professional staff because fewer volunteer to provide services.
Is it possible that the next major missionary movement will come
from third world churches that have a vitality and enthusiasm for
the gospel? Already some third world churches are sending
missionaries to Europe and North America.
3. Prophets or Fanatics. It is often difficult to
distinguish the fanatic from the true prophet. It is important
that persons make the distinction. The test of the fanatic is
the person who is obsessed with himself. He feeds his own
desires and thirst for power and control. If someone makes a
claim to being a prophet but acts contrary to the spirit of
Christ he must be seen as a fanatic and not a true prophet.
Unquestioning loyalty should not be given to the fanatic, no
matter how charming or persuasive the fanatic may seem. Final
loyalty belongs to Christ alone and not to any human leader, no
matter how charismatic the leader may be.
4. Toleration of Diversity. A difficult stance to maintain
is a toleration of diversity when a person is deeply committed to
beliefs and loyalties. A fine line separates understanding and
accepting persons who seem to transgress values held most dear
and embracing the values of those persons as valid. The trick of
opposing wickedness perpetrated without taking upon oneself the
destruction of the perpetrator requires a disciplined adherence
to the respect for the life of every person regardless of his or
her actions. It also requires a trust that God is the final
vindicator of real values.
1. Given to Others. Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had
a dream in which a church was in danger of splitting in two. He
saw himself called upon to hold it together. He devoted himself
to try to prevent the breach in the church from leading to its
destruction in an age of rapid change. His life and teachings
led to the founding of a new order within the church, though it
was not his intention to split the church. He did revitalize
Christianity in his area through his teaching and that of his
followers. He helped to maintain the unity of the medieval
church for another two or three centuries.
John Wesley felt the church of his day was not ministering
to the needs of the people. He set out to make changes. He
traveled and preached incessantly. He did not intend to
establish a new denomination. His followers met in chapels
rather than churches originally. One finds many Methodist
chapels in England. Nevertheless, he did become the founder of
Methodism which split from the Anglican or Episcopalian Church.
In a similar way George Fox thought that the churches of his
day were corrupted. His followers did not seek to found
institutions, which he felt were part of the problem. So they
used meeting houses and called themselves the Society of Friends
rather than a church. The Society of Friends also eventually
became a new denomination and developed their own characteristic
2. Modern Martyrs. Those who oppose the evils in society
and vested interests still may be victims of the wickedness they
oppose. Mahatma Gandhi practiced nonviolence and worked for
reconciliation with those whom he opposed. He was assassinated
by a fanatic from his own religion who thought he betrayed it in
trying to overcome the violence between the Hindu and Moslem
populations after independence of India from Great Britain was
Martin Luther King, Jr., practiced and advocated Christian
love and nonviolence in his struggle for civil rights. He was
stabbed and almost killed by a black woman. Later he was
assassinated for his beliefs and actions for civil rights,
economic justice and opposition to the war in Vietnam.
It is reported that more Christian missionaries were buried
in Algeria than converts were made from Muhammadanism to
Christianity in that country.
3. Sense of Doom. Two men in their late adolescence and
early adulthood had to be treated for mental illness because of
their strong sense of doom. They came out of the treatment with
a strong commitment to help the mentally ill. Clifford Beers
became the founder of the Committee on Mental Hygiene which was a
major force for improvement of conditions in mental hospitals.
Anton Boisen became a leading figure in the pastoral care
4. Misplaced Freedom. George Santayana, a Spanish
philosopher, is reported to have said that if everyone does what
he wills, nobody gets what he wants.
5. Fanaticism. Someone has defined a fanatic as one who
can't change his mind and won't change the subject!