Are We Sometimes Like the Tenants in the Vineyard?

TRADITIONAL SERMON       PENTECOST 18

Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Colossians 1:3).

The parable in our gospel reading Matthew today is also found in Mark and Luke. The parable is known either as the Parable of the Vineyard or the Parable of the Tenants. This parable is rich in allegory in which elements of the parable have symbolic meanings. In the parable, the landowner symbolizes God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the religious leaders of Israel during the time of Christ, the slaves are the Old Testament prophets, and the son of the landowner is Jesus. According to Matthew, we see that Jesus relayed the parable to the chief priests and Pharisees at the temple and that, as noted in verse 45, the chief priests and Pharisees clearly knew that the parable was about them. So, let’s apply those symbolic meanings of the parable’s elements to come up with the message Jesus was getting across. The landowner—God—plants a vineyard which represents a covenant with Israel that is managed by the tenants—the religious leaders. On more than one occasion, God sends prophets whom the religious leaders reject, here represented by the tenants either beating or killing the slaves the landowner sent. Then God decides to send his son, Jesus, who is also rejected and subsequently killed. The crucifixion of Jesus results in a judgement against Israel represented by the tenants being condemned to death. From Matthew’s contemporary perspective, this judgment against Israel did take place. Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. and the gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written just a few years after this incident. Then, getting back to the parable, the last part, verses 41 and 43, which is only found in Matthew, but not in the Mark or Luke versions, is that the vineyard will then be leased to other tenants to produce fruit. These so-called other tenants can be viewed as “the church.” One can look at this as meaning that Jesus was pointing out that the Jewish religious leaders had failed to produce good fruit that would have pleased God and now God was looking to the church in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection to be fruitful in meeting God’s expectations.

Unfortunately, over the centuries this parable has been used to fuel anti-Semitism against the Jewish people as a group when, in fact, the parable was aimed at only the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The parable, however, can be viewed in ways to look at other issues such as faith, stewardship, and God’s grace.

Regarding faith, let’s look at the heart of this parable—Israel is rejecting God even though prophets were sent as well as his only son, Jesus. Let’s take that perspective and put it in today’s context among ourselves and our fellow human beings throughout the world. How many times have we rejected God during our lives? When things are not working out? When tragedy strikes? Although there will be those who call out to God and Jesus for help when times are rough, there are also those who will outright reject God and Jesus in anger. If not ourselves, how many times have we been witness to others who reject God? There are those who do not believe in God at all—God does not exist! Interestingly, there are atheists who nevertheless appear spiritual because of the way they express their awe and wonder of nature and the universe they live in while as the same time denying any responsibility to whoever was responsible for its creation. Moreover, during the last few decades, we have been seeing a decline in church membership in all the Christian denominations. Just look around at all the beautiful houses of worship throughout our own community that once were packed with parishioners but are now struggling to fill their pews. This is expected to get worse as more and more people reject God. It appears that people do not want to be a part of a church, or any type of worship. And then there are those who don’t completely reject God, but have since stopped attending church. One commentary I read also noted that another way in which people reject God is by rejecting other human beings for whatever reason. When some of God’s people are rejected, we are also rejecting the God who made them. I thought this was an interesting perspective especially since we are seeing a rise in racism and discrimination not only in our own country but also in other parts of the world.

This parable, therefore, can help us to be more reflective about our own faith in God and Jesus Christ. It can make us look at ourselves. Just imagine being one of those chief priests or Pharisees at the temple in Jesus’ presence when he relayed this parable to them and how they must have been squirming and feeling uncomfortable knowing that they were the tenants in the story.

On stewardship, we can look at this parable to show how God’s creation has been bestowed upon us to do as we please with the understanding that we are to take care of this creation not only to benefit ourselves, but also to benefit future generations. We all need to be take care of this good earth! Although we have been given free rein in how we manage God’s creation, it does not mean misuse, abuse, waste, and destroying what God has given us. We cannot deny that we have been getting warnings of how the human race over the centuries has been polluting and contaminating what God has created for us. We all need to be good tenants of this vast vineyard! Being bad stewards of creation is not good.

Now despite rejecting God not taking care of God’s creation, the good news is that God loves us nonetheless and his grace is undeniable! God is more merciful than can be imagined! All of this and God’s love for us is illustrated right in the parable! First, God gives us a lot of freedom just like the tenants who had the vineyard leased to them. They tended to the vineyard as they pleased—God was not there to micromanage. Second, this really shows us how trusting God is. We have been bestowed God’s creation and all the things given to us. We have been entrusted to care for God’s creation without God breathing down our necks to make sure we are doing the right thing. However, the tenants—as well as us—are held accountable! Namely, we have the freedom to live our Christian lives as we wish but we will also have to give an account of how well we lived our lives when that time comes. In addition, we are also privileged to work and live in our community just like the tenants were given the privilege to work the vineyard. Third, the parable shows us how patient God is, sending us messages of his love, grace, and mercy over and over again, even though there are those who reject God. It is almost as if God were acting like a parent of unruly children, wanting to repeatedly reach out with love and understanding. Overall, God’s love was shown by sending his only son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins even though, like the tenants in the parable, we were unworthy. God loves us so much!

God is also looking to have a fruitful church, which was given “to others” after the failure of Israel’s religious leaders were noted. God’s attempt to shape the world through the ministry of the church will not be established through chance or coincidence. God is trusting us to not reject his will.

In conclusion, this parable can be viewed as a way to illustrate the Kingdom of Heaven “by showing the opposite way in which the world works. This world operates on the basis of do unto others as they have done unto you, just like the characters in the parable. In this world, when someone does you wrong, you get even. But this is not so in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven operates on a very different basis—on the basis of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, and God’s unfailing mercy.” We will always have that from God! What a wonderful God we have, who sacrificed his only son to benefit all of humanity. We indeed have been blessed! Amen.

Vicar Pal Pusztai

Vicar Pal Pusztai

Vicar Pál I. Pusztai is in his third year at the United Lutheran Seminary’s Gettysburg campus. Vicar Pál is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. He currently lives in Dover, Pennsylvania.

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