The parable of the tenants who rent a vineyard was the subject of today’s sermon at Amherst Presbyterian Church. Below you can find a link to the audio as well as the prepared text for the message. The parable isn’t an allegory but it is somewhat allegorical and it is part of a clash between Jesus and Israel’s religious leadership. Jesus is elaborating on Isaiah 5:1-7 (my sermon on Isaiah 5 is available here). This is the second of three parables in a row, each of which build on the previous one and thus have similarities in message and tone. I’ll be preaching on the third of these parables next Sunday at Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church before returning to the pulpit of Amherst Presbyterian Church through November 1st.
Death & Rent (Sermon Audio Link)
Renting out an apartment or home can be a dangerous business. I remember talking with someone in that line of work about how unsafe his job was. He wasn’t the owner of the properties but he did things like showings, maintenance calls, and knocking on the doors when rent is late to see when they might expect payment. I’m told that even with doing background checks and reference calls you may often end up renting to a tenant who trashes the property and/or refuses to pay rent. One tenant, he told me, even emptied out the recycle bins and stole them. Out of concern for his safety he wouldn’t go alone when knocking on doors to remind tenants to go pay their rent. Often all he needed to say is, “You know why I’m here.” But a few times he had to tell testy tenants that he would press charges if they hit him. And when they don’t pay their rent, then the landlord would go through the process to evict the tenant. As I understand it, tenants have several opportunities to repent and pay their rent. Right now there is even a moratorium on evictions so that tenants have longer to do so because of the pandemic. Eviction costs the owner about $500 – not to mention unpaid rent that they will never see. $500 is about what it costs in legal fees plus what they have to pay to have the warrant served. When someone was going to be evicted he would bring a new set of locks, which he would install after the officer entered the home with gun drawn and tells the tenants to leave with whatever they want to keep. Clearly it is a risky and even dangerous business not only in terms of potential loss of income and damage to property that sometimes is so great that foreclosure on the property makes the most financial sense but also in terms of violence to those persons working for the business. Speaking of bad tenants:
(This parable does not seem very difficult for all of us to understand on a first reading—but you may wonder, ‘Why would the father send his own son after seeing how the tenants had treated his servants?’ And if you weren’t wondering that already, you probably are now. But think about it. Even if we’ve waited until our kids are mature adults, how many of us would send our own children into such a dangerous environment to collect the rent knowing what we know about these tenants?)
After sending His servants the prophets and seeing what happened to them, God the Father sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, knowing that Jesus would die, rise from the dead, and then the Father would transfer His kingdom-rule to Jesus and His disciples.
Now the father’s decision in the parable to send the son is the unexpected climax to the whole parable but in that culture he was justified in thinking that sending his son should work. Just as today one might have the officer serve the warrant with gun drawn, the master could have done something similar back then. But instead he sends his son—unarmed. I always thought that the father should expect the tenants to treat the son the same way that they had treated the servants. However, Ken Bailey shares a story from the early 1980s about King Hussein of Jordan to illustrate what the master could expect. The Jordanian king had been told that there were roughly 75 army officers plotting in a nearby barracks to overthrow the government. Naturally, the police asked the king for permission to surround the barracks and arrest these traitors. But instead the king decided that he would walk unarmed into the room where they were plotting this coup. He did so and told them that if they did what they were planning it would throw the whole country into a civil war and many innocents would die. So he said, “Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way, only one man will die.” Their reaction was to rush forward and kiss his hand and feet and swear lifelong loyalty to him. The king had appealed to their sense of honor in a shame society. Likewise, the master in Jesus’ parable was appealing to their honor in a shame society. Early translations of “They will respect my son” in Matt 21:37 read: “perhaps they will feel shame in his presence.” The story about King Hussein implies that if the rebels repented of their plot, they would receive amnesty. Likewise in the parable, seeing the son should have led the tenants to feel shame for their treatment of the servants and to repent and they would be forgiven. (Of course, God knew that things would not go as well for Jesus just as they didn’t go very well for the son in the parable. In the parable, the wretches killed the son and when the father came in wrath they came to a wretched end. At least, that’s the ending of the parable supplied by those who heard Jesus tell it.)
This parable is a thinly veiled description of the place of Jesus in God’s story. The vineyard is Israel and signifies service in the kingdom of God. The servants in the parable are the prophets. The son who was thrown out of the vineyard and killed is Jesus. The tenants who beat, killed, and/or stoned the servants and who killed the son are Israel’s religious leadership. In Jesus’ day, these religious leaders were the chief priests belonging to the Sadducee party and the elders from the Pharisee party. Matthew tells us that these groups realized Jesus was speaking about them when He told this parable. (But the parable not only describes Jesus’ place in general, it also sheds light on recent events. In particular, in this chapter of Matthew: Jesus cleansed the Temple, cursed the fig tree, and the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him demanding to know where He got the authority to do what He was doing.)
The parable is meant to further explain Jesus’ prophetic acts of cleansing the Temple and cursing the fig tree. As to Jesus cleansing the Temple the parable is explaining that the priests and Pharisees wanted to kill Him so that they can continue to act like owners of the Temple rather than stewards of the Temple. As to Jesus cursing the fig tree the parable is explaining that the priests and Pharisees failed to produce the fruit of repentance for God and thus service in the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to others. Indeed, the passage ends with a tragic irony: warned that they will reject Jesus and be crushed, the religious leaders of Israel rushed to make it happen and to bring on themselves the very consequences they had been warned about. You may be understandably uncomfortable with this bloody vigilante ending of the parable that was supplied by those listening to Jesus tell it. But those who first heard this parable were right to conclude that the vineyard owner would come and put them to death. God would put those wretches to a wretched death as Jesus speaks of Himself as a stone that would crush them and He did just that when He destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple about forty years after He told this parable. They were also right right to conclude that the vineyard owner would let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons. The kingdom of God was taken away from the Jewish religious leaders and given to Jesus and His Jewish apostles. The tenants didn’t pay their rent and so the vineyard would be rent [bad pun—ripped, torn] from them and given to the apostles. They themselves acknowledged that these are just judgments. They couldn’t imagine a different ending to the parable. Thus they missed the most important consequence of the religious leaders rejecting Jesus. So Jesus asked, “Have you never read in the Scriptures” citing Psalm 118:22f?—They didn’t understand that the Hebrew Scriptures say the Son would rise from the dead. They did not anticipate that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone of a new Temple. They didn’t expect the good news of the gospel that is marvelous in our eyes and that bears fruit unlike the cursed fig tree. They didn’t realize that because the religious leaders of Israel rejected Jesus we would be saved from our sins to serve in God’s kingdom.
(Thus while you probably immediately recognized that this parable was about Jesus and you probably immediately understood most of what Jesus was doing by telling it, hopefully you found something I’ve said so far that will spur you to an even deeper contemplation if you read the parable again this week. But we would miss the point of the parable if we didn’t also stress how the parable changes us. Thankfully, this parable also does not seem very difficult for all of us, even on a first reading, to know how to apply it to our lives.)
Believing this good news about Jesus, we apply this parable by bearing the fruits of repentance.
The parable was fulfilled when God transferred His kingdom-rule from the religious leaders of Israel to the risen Jesus and His apostles. The chief priests and the Pharisees should’ve appreciated everything God did for them. Jesus represents this in the parable as planting a vineyard, putting a fence around it, digging a winepress in it, and building a tower. In other words, God had chosen them, blessed them (wine was associated with joy), and provided them with protection. The vineyard owner [point up] was the opposite of a slumlord [point down]. And now Jesus, the Son, arrived. Jesus wasn’t just another one of the prophets. He is the Son of God forever praised! But the chief priests and Pharisees refused to give Him the fruits of repentance with thanks. Indeed, they plotted to arrest and kill Him. But the Father sent Him to die for our sins on the cross, He rose from the dead on the third day, and He became the head of His church. Yes, God transferred His kingdom-rule from the chief priests and Pharisees to the risen Jesus and His apostles. Thus we don’t pay rent to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus paid the price for the vineyard so that we can serve in it. (Moreover, by transferring His kingdom-rule to new leadership, His kingdom-rule has been given to a people producing its fruits.)
So whenever we bear the fruits of God’s kingdom-rule we apply this parable. Tax collectors and prostitutes who repented at the preaching of John the Baptist were producing such fruits. These fruits of repentance are the ongoing “rent” we render to God. Think of it this way—You have heard it said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The priests and Pharisees had much the same attitude about paying their “rent” that we have about paying taxes. That’s why I titled the sermon, “Death and Rent.” On the other hand, those who believe in Jesus bear the fruits of the kingdom of God in many ways including when we give generously to His church. We don’t look at tithing as paying taxes. We don’t look at bearing the fruits of repentance as paying rent—as if it were a bad thing. It isn’t a burden. We bear the fruits of the kingdom of God because we are grateful for everything that God has done for us. The chief priests and the Pharisees deserved death for their part in Christ’s death. Some hardened their hearts to their own destruction—refusing to put their faith in Jesus even after the Temple was destroyed as He prophesied it would be. That was the ending that they wanted for the parable. But thankfully, some did come to believe in Jesus and to bear the fruits of repentance. They experienced a different ending to the parable. Like everyone who trusts in Jesus, they were a people saved to serve in God’s kingdom—a kingdom that they acknowledged did not belong to them—they were stewards and it’s His kingdom. And when the world sees the fruits of God’s kingdom, we have a clear message to share. You have been served an eviction notice and have had multiple opportunities to repent and submit to Jesus. It is not too late for you either. But the moratorium will soon come to an end and the meek will inherit the earth. Thanks be to God.