Matthew 21:33-46

October 5, 2014 by Ken Dale

Parables confuse, conceal, are puzzling, outrageous, strange, and sometimes even offensive. They have a way of working on us and in us and they challenge us and change us. This morning we find ourselves in the vineyard once again ? third time in three weeks. But this morning we are confronted with a startling story that has violence and even murder ? all over grapes?

The traditional interpretation of this parable is the vineyard is Israel, God is the landowner, the tenant farmers are the corrupt leaders of Israel, and the servants are the prophets God sends but they are beaten, thrown out, even killed. Eventually God send?s his Son ? but he too is killed and the punch line is that when the day of the Lord comes, as Jesus? listeners voice it ? God will wreak vengeance upon them and they will get replaced with new people who are obedient to God?s will ? and of course that would be us.

But in my reading this past week I came across a somewhat deeper interpretation by Lowell Grisham that I would like to share. He states we need to consider the times in which Jesus shares this story. Palestine was great place to farm and herd and it was near sea trade routes. It was a great place to get rich and so it was the wealthy who were in a position to grab that opportunity. During Roman occupation most of that farmland was controlled by foreign owners who made minimal investments for a maximum return. During the reign of Herod great crop surpluses were common but most of it was exported and Palestine experienced regular food shortages that drove up prices. This economic stress coupled with high taxes drove the poor into indentured servitude and they would sell themselves to provide for their families.

Tenant farmers had freedom but didn?t fare much better. They rented the land but had to work long hard hours only to return the majority of the profit to the foreign owner. So there is abundant crops, food shortages, and absentee landowners. In the story Jesus tells, those tenants get fed up and fired up and take matters into their own hands ? so what if a few landlords and their kin get killed in such an oppressive system. Jesus? hearers would have been rooting for those tenants ? we see it in their response when Jesus asks, ?when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?? Can?t you hear them, ?Put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give them the produce at the harvest time.?

Jesus responds, ?Have you never read 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.? Jesus is quoting Psalm 118. Grisham calls us to consider how shocked Jesus? listeners would have been when Jesus uses the image of the hated absentee landlord as an image for God. Jesus is actually condemning the violence of those poor tenants. ?The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.? God doesn?t send an army to crush the oppressors ? he sends his son ? who is rejected and killed ? but then is raised. ?Truly amazing in our eyes.? What is revealed in this activity is a new power ? and a power that gives life instead of taking it.

Grisham says that Jesus is condemning the anger and violence of the tenants and, illustrating that violence begets violence. Jesus is teaching them an utterly new way of being. It?s not about being violent and power-driven, it?s about the rejected stone ? the path not taken, the path of faith and hope and imagination. It?s about love that is so steadfast it is willilng to be rejected and faith that trusts in resurrection. Paul captures it in Galatians 5 ? that the fruits of that kingdom are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Isn?t that what see in the life of that one we call the cornerstone of our faith?

Yes ? we know what happens to Jesus. And telling these parables to whom he tells them, it is no wonder that at the end of the week he is rejected and put to a miserable death. It appears that power does win and love does lose. But Easter turns everything around ? and we are a people of that Easter faith. Yes it is a challenge living in the world in which we live today ? where it is just as hard for us to believe that love and justice and faith and hope really win in the end. But the parable speaks to us as it did to them ? will we respect and follow the Son ? or in desperate fear believe this is a power-driven world?


Based on the sermon The Parable of the Wicked Tenants by Lowell Grisham.