This is a difficult parable.
1. We sympathize with those who are judged/condemned/excluded and so many of us sensitive souls are uneasy with what we take to be the conclusion.
a) “God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who will produce fruit.”
b) As I’ve said in similar instances, we may want to pay attention to how Christlike that sympathy and uneasiness is.
c) One of the reasons that this parable grates on us is because it is at odds with what we might have thought Jesus would say.
2. We might be especially sensitive to what has been seen as the anti-Semitic edge to this parable. It is easily read – when taken on its own – as it has indeed been read – to say that God is taking away the relationship God has with the Jewish people and given it, instead, to Christians.
a) This parable has been destructively used that way and Christians ought to be on guard against using it that way and be vigilant about not falling into anti-Semitism.
b) I am not going to get into the whole question about the relationship between Jews and Christians here this morning, but suffice it to say that St. Paul, for example, is clear in his letter to the Romans that God has not and will never abandon the Jewish people.
c) The long history of Christian anti-Semitism is a horror that we need to be aware of and repent from, especially in these days when we have neo-Nazis marching in the streets of our cities.
So this is a difficult parable. Nonetheless, it is a parable by which Jesus offers us the wisdom of heaven.
As I have been saying, the aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations and surrender to reality. Jesus’ parables are stories that help us to do that. So it is important when we read a parable that we hold our expectations lightly.
Not give them up entirely. Sometimes it is precisely our thwarted expectations that give the parable its power. Jesus leads us to reveal our assumptions so that they can be overturned. But we should be wary about trying to force our understanding of a parable to reflect what we’ve always believed or what we expect Jesus, or Christianity, or religion to teach us.
As I’ve said in previous weeks, Jesus’ parables can present exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives. Jesus can invite us into thought experiments to imagine a principle carried out to its extreme to see if it is really true. Jesus’ parables can be jarring and powerful, confusing, or comforting. They are not meant for a quick read and move on. Instead they are meant for us to marinate in them, stew in them over time. They are meant to dissolve the glue that attaches us to conventional thinking and ordinary prejudice. They are to open a space to see with new eyes.
Now when it comes to understanding parables or other biblical passages that seem to be in tension with others we need to decide what are our regulative or benchmarking basic standards. What are our regulating principles of interpretation? What do we take as fixed and basic?
What is most basic? What is the deepest reality?
Jesus Principle: from the Sermon on the Mount, earlier in Matthew – “Don’t judge so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give.”
This is a fundamental proposition of Jesus. This is part of the core. When it looks like a teaching is pointing a different way, we need to look deeper. Jesus himself, by the way, pulls at strands from what we know as the Old Testament that are in tension and he takes as core, regulating passages those that are reconciling, compassionate, merciful, and inclusive.
So this “don’t judge so that you won’t be judged” principle is the principle that Jesus uses in his wisdom teaching in the presence of the Chief Priests and Pharisees. Why?
Because they are exactly in the business of imposing judgment and condemnation. These religious leaders control the real-time application of what they take to be God’s law and they wield it unmercifully in God’s name. That is a core position that Jesus has come to undermine. The wisdom of heaven that he offers overturns their pretense to godliness. They both hate and fear Jesus for this.
So Jesus tells a parable that, in part, mimics their belief. He tells a story of an absentee landlord who has gone off and left the tenants in the vineyard all by themselves. Of course, this absentee landlord, like all landlords, is a rent collector. The landlord wants a part of the profits. They refuse to pay and they beat up the agents that the landlord sends seeking the rent. Then the landlord sends his son, thinking that they will, of course, respect his son. But it doesn’t happen. They kill the son in the crazed belief that they will then take possession of the vineyard.
So Jesus asks the religious leaders, the Chief Priests and Pharisees – remember, this is interactive teaching – what do you suppose the landlord will do when he comes?
The religious leaders are primed with the answer. They know the answer. He will destroy the wicked tenants and rent it out to others who will pay their rent.
The religious leaders supply the conclusion based on what kind of God they think God is. A God of coercion, threat, punishment. They cannot fathom Jesus’ understanding of God.
The Chief Priests and Pharisees understand the deep reality to be the reality of reward and punish, achieve and fail, win and lose. If you think of God this way, you will hear the parable the way they do and then you will come up with the answer to Jesus’ question that they do.
To give them some credit, that is the way of the world. It has its place. But that way of life, that kingdom, only goes so far.
The ego’s world is a world based on reward and punishment. And that is the way it must be. That’s the level at which the ego works. But Jesus’ wisdom invites us to go beyond that because God, is, in fact beyond that. Love is beyond that.
Again: hear me clearly: I am not saying that rewards and punishments are unimportant or stupid or evil. They have their place in the world. They help us to learn. They are part of what has been called our survival dance and I encourage all of us to learn that dance well. We can do a lot of good for ourselves and for others with that survival dance.
But when we move into God’s ways of forgiveness and grace, we’ve moved beyond reward and punishment and moved into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is the sacred dance.
Jesus is trying to unglue us from the expectations of our reward and punishment ego-mentality.
Because that ego mentality is not grander game of God. The grander game of God is love. The deeper reality to which Jesus points is the wisdom of heaven which is all about reconciliation.
Again, return to this parable, this wisdom teaching. Let’s look at how it is an interactive teaching exercise as all good wisdom teaching is.
Jesus tells of a group of people. Given a good situation. But they are not grateful. Not even fulfilling the obligation to give the owner a portion of the harvest. Kill son. The religious leaders are asked what should happen next. On the basis of their answer, they are told that they themselves will be thrown out of the vineyard and condemned. Jesus tells the religious leaders that they will be thrown out of the vineyard and it will be given to others.
Remember the core principle of Jesus from the sermon on the mount:
For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
So with that in mind, let’s look more closely at the parable. Where do we get the idea that the landowner will put those tenants to a miserable death? It comes to us from answer the religious leaders give. Not from Jesus.
And with that in mind, let’s look back more carefully at the parable. What sort of landlord is this? He tolerates the killing of his servants? The deeper reality of the story that Jesus tells – if we take it seriously – is of a landowner who wants first and foremost to be restored to relationship with the tenants.
Jesus asks the Chief Priests and Pharisees to finish the parable, and their proffered conclusion invites the judgment that falls on them. Their whole world is built on a lie about God that they attempt to enforce. Jesus is the stone that destroys their world. They fall to the judgment they make; they receive the measure they give.
Jesus asks his listeners for an ending to the story. Let’s remember that this is interactive teaching. Let’s take a breath and re-imagine the parable ending in a different way, shall we? It’s a story, after all, and we can imagine any ending we like.
The landowner’s son lies on the ground, beaten, dead. The tenants, having finished the awful deed, begin to move back.
Suddenly, the landowner appears riding a horse, accompanied by all his kin. As he takes in the scene, he runs to his Son and takes him in his arms. He weeps.
The tenants stand still, stunned by what they see. The reality of what they have done begins to dawn on them. They sober up.
They are amazed as the young man’s father puts his mouth to the mouth of his Son and breathes life into him. The son begins to revive and the tenants begin to cower.
Assured that his son has been brought back to life, the landowner addresses the tenants: My son who was dead is now alive.
Now let’s share the harvest and rejoice together. Let a feast of reconciliation begin.
We can imagine this ending to the parable because that is the ending to the enacted parable that was Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection.
In that living parable God posed the question.
God put the question to the world in Christ Jesus: Will you accept and receive, will you embrace the love and presence and peace I have to offer? Will you open your hearts to the wisdom of heaven?
The world answered with the crucifixion.
God’s reply is: I am going to love you anyway. I am going to make over that very act of rebellion and rejection of me into your transformation.
Listen: wisdom’s story, is not about retaliation, condemnation, getting ahead, or dominating others. It’s not about getting your own way or about shrinking back from the dreams of your true heart. It’s about living out heaven from your opened heart.
Our story together as St. Paul’s UMC is the story of how we embrace the abundance of God’s blessing and goodness in faith, hope, and love. It’s about how we embrace the life that that wisdom of heaven invites us into. That’s what it’s about.
Together – living out the wisdom of heaven, opening the doors of heaven to nourish the earth – that’s our task and that’s our story.
That’s the deep reality we honor. That is the deep reality we celebrate.