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Wicked Tenants

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Proper 22

Pentecost 20

Ordinary Time 27

10. Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21:33-46

"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

eyes'?

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."

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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

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.

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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

him.

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.

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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

pursued.

John 15:1-7 Ä The image of the true vine and the vine

growing.

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

stumble.

Hebrews 11:36-38 Ä Mention of the prophets who were stoned,

sawn in two and killed by the sword.

Content

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

early church.

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

people,

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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

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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

own peril.

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.

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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

and saved.

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

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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.

Contemplation

Insights

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

itself.

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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

more faithfully.

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Homily Hints

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.

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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

unacceptable.

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

Contact

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

occasions

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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

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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.

Illustrative Materials

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

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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

institutions.

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

granted.

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.

__________________

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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

movement.

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!

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