The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Our summer sermon series through the parables continued this weekend with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.
33 “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. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They 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.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;[a]
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 away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.[b]44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”[c]
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
“What do you think he’ll do when he comes back?” Jesus asks on the eve of his own destruction.
“When he comes back, what do you think he’ll do?”
And they said to him: “When he comes back (when he comes back to judge the quick and the dead) he will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?”
Here’s another question—
Since today is the fifth Sunday in Eastertide, here’s a resurrection question for you.
Why is the very first reaction to the Easter news fear?
Across all four Gospels, the immediate response to the news Christ is Risen isn’t Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! It’s alarm and abject terror. Why?
Mark and Matthew, Luke and John— none of them tell the Easter story in the same way.
Except for the fear.
Fear is the feature Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree upon.
The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear. The women, come to anoint the body, run away, terrified. The disciples lock the door of the upper room and cower in the corner.
When he comes back, everyone— they’re white-knuckled terrified.
Just what do they think he’ll do?
Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in the Book of Daniel, chapter twelve.
And the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection:
“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt.”
It’s a double resurrection the Bible anticipates. A resurrection to reward, or a resurrection to punishment.Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God in God’s Kingdom.
But those who’ve committed suffering by their sins— they might be on top now in this life, but one day the first will be last. God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to its everlasting opposite.
The “good” news of resurrection in the Book of Daniel is predicated entirely upon your goodness.
Resurrection was not about yellow peeps and metaphors for springtime renewal; resurrection was God coming back with a list of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice in order to mete out to each according to what they deserved.
Resurrection wasn’t about butterflies. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the righteous and the judgment owed to sinners. In the only Bible the disciples knew, the Old Testament, resurrection was good news. If you were good. If you weren’t, if you were wicked, resurrection was the first day of a miserable and wretched fate.
They all respond to the Easter news with fear not because they fail to understand resurrection but exactly because they do understand.
They know their Bible— better than you. They knew resurrection was good news or godawful news depending on where you fell according to the righteousness equation. And they know that as God’s elect People in the world God had called them, Israel, to be tenants of God’s vineyard.
And they know all too well that when God set them apart as his peculiar, pilgrim People, when God gave to them the Law on Mt. Sinai, they promised God not just their effort or their obedience but perfection.
“All of this we will do and more,” they swore at Sinai, “we will be
perfect before the Law as our Father in heaven is perfect.”
When they weren’t—
When they failed to return God’s love with love of their own, when they chose to be like the other nations instead of a light to the nations, God sent them his messengers to call Abraham’s children back to the righteous life owed to God as God’s chosen People.
First, God sent them prophets.
And what did the People who’d promised him perfection do the prophets?
Zechariah, who told them that God would redistribute their wealth for the sake of the poor, was killed by the King of Judah on the altar of the Temple. Jeremiah criticized them for turning a deaf ear to lies and making an idol of their politics. They shut him up by stoning him to death. And Isaiah was sawn in two near the pool of Siloam for speaking truth to power. “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah said, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”
They killed the prophets— and those are just three examples.
So next this God of second and third and sixth chances, he sends them still another.
A final prophet.
And this messenger makes a way in the wilderness. And he baptizes in the Jordan with a baptism of repentance, and he calls God’s wicked tenants a brood of vipers.
Wearing camel-hair, he hollers about God’s axe lying near, but in the end he’s the one on whom the blade falls. A king of the Jews serves his head on a platter as a party gag.
Yet this God is not a Lord of ledgers but a Father of compassion.
After he sends his People prophets, after he sends them John the Baptist (it makes no sense at all) God sends them his only-begotten Son. The Kingdom of God comes in the flesh and our response is my will be done. God’s People say “We have no king but Caesar.” And then they scream “Crucify him!”
His own disciples—
They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail. They’d let the wicked world sin all its sins into him.
And then they left him forsaken on a cross.
When the owner comes back— and the word Jesus uses there is kyrios, meaning Lord— when the Lord comes back, what do you think he’ll do?
Everyone in the Easter story responds to the news that Jesus is longer dead with dread because they expect the Lord to put wretches like them to a miserable death.
For the Bible tells them so. They lock the doors. They run and hide. They faint and cower because, according to scripture, resurrection for sinners means judgment. They have every reason to expect the Lord who’s come back to condemn them:
I was naked and you were not there to clothe me. I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink. I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending me a stranger.
If Jesus was risen indeed, then there weren’t any alleluias for them. Resurrection could only mean one awful thing for wicked tenants like them.
When he comes back, he doesn’t pay them the wages their sins had earned. He doesn’t put wretches like them to a miserable death. The Lord who’d sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, slips past their locked doors and he doesn’t give them payback. He gives them pardon.
“Peace,” he says.
When he comes back, he doesn’t give them what Daniel promised they have coming to them, everlasting punishment. No, he gives them his Holy Spirit that he had promised would come to them.
He gives them his Spirit.
He gives them his pardon.
And he gives to them the ministry of pardon. “Wherever you forgive the sins— any sins— of anyone, their sins are forgiven,” Jesus commissions them.
Even Peter, who’d lied and denied the Lord thrice, when he comes back to wretched Peter, he doesn’t indict Peter and condemn him. He invites Peter to confess his love for him.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
When he comes back to his wicked tenants…
WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?
Resurrection is supposed to be a double-edged sword. Resurrection is about reward and punishment. Resurrection is about the justification of the righteous and the judgment of the unrighteous.
The Bible tells them so— that’s why they’re terrified.
But when the Lord returns to his vineyard, his tenants do not receive what they deserve.
They receive what only he deserves.
As though, resurrection isn’t a double-edged sword so much as an exchange.
Eight years ago exactly to the day, I was in Old Town Alexandria shopping for a black tie to wear for the funeral of a boy I was burying. He’d been a little younger than my youngest boy is now. In a closet filled with Lego pieces and action figures, he’d done it himself with a fake leather belt bought at Target.
It was a couple of days before the day that Harold Camping, a huckster preacher and president of Family Christian Radio, had predicted the world would end, in judgment and fury, the twenty-first of May.
Standing on the corner of King Street, blocking my path, were four or five of Camping’s disciples. A couple of the “evangelists” of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of God’s wrath and damnation.
I remember one image— an image borrowed from the Book of Daniel— was of an awful-looking lion with scars on its paws. At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women and children, looking terrified to be caught in their sins by Christ come back.
A young twenty-something man tried to hand me a tract. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us. He gave me a syrupy smile, and said, “Did you know the wicked world is going to end on May 21? The Lord is coming back in just two days. What do you think he’ll do when he returns? To sinners?”
Then he started talking about the end of the world. I flipped through his brochure.
“Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots,” I mumbled.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”
Now, I’m still new here at Annandale United Methodist Church. Maybe you don’t yet know. Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm. Sometimes, my sarcasm is of the abrasive varietal. But that day, the day before I had to bury that boy who’d died by his own foolish hand, what I felt rising in me was more like anger.
Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.
And these “evangelists” weren’t dishing out anything of the sort.
“Lemme ask you something,” I said, “since you seem to know your Bible.”
The evangelist smiled and nodded. He looked electrified to be, all of a sudden, useful.
“Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world?” I asked, feigning naïveté.
He nodded a sanctimonious grin.
“Well then, which ones did he miss?”
He looked confused, as shoppers pushed past us to get to the bus stop.
“Sins,” I pressed, “which sins did Jesus miss?”
I’d raised my voice now, my pretense falling away and my righteous anger welling up in the teardrops at the corner of my eyes. “Did Jesus take away all the sins of the world, or did he only get some of them?”
No sooner had he started to mouth the word “all” than I was back down his throat.
“Really?! Because from your signs and pamphlets, it sure as hell looks like Jesus missed a whole lot of sins, that he’s none too pleased with folks who can’t get their act together.”
He started to give me a patronizing chuckle, so I pressed him.
“And, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say, whilst dying for the sins of the whole world, ‘It is finished?’ Isn’t that, like, red-letter?”
He nodded and looked over my head to his supervisor behind me. I was shouting now.
“And doesn’t it say, too, that in Jesus God has chosen all of us from before the foundation of the world?”
“I think so,” he said. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, damn straight it does,” I hollered. “Ephesians, and, looking at you all with your bullhorns and pictures of lions and dragons and brimstone and judgment, I’m just wondering how, if God’s chosen us all in Christ from before the beginning of everything, you think so many of us with our puny, pathetic, run-of-the-mill sins—which have all been taken away already—can gum up God’s plan?”
“Riddle me that,” I shouted.
Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic.
“I’m not sure you understand how serious this is, sir,” he said to me.
“Oh, I got it, all right.”
He suddenly looked like he was trying to remember the safe word.
“I get how serious it is,” I said, “I just think it’s you who doesn’t take it seriously, not enough apparently to take Jesus at his word that when he comes back he’ll come back already bearing every sin we’ve ever sinned in his crucified and risen body. The Judge has been judged in our place. It’s not about reward and punishment anymore. It’s about promise. The Gospel promise that he has gotten what we all deserve and we’re given gratis what he alone deserves.”
You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—
It’s because this “evangelist,” this preacher, just stared at me like he’d never the Gospel before. He hadn’t.
“The only basis on which God judges now is not our works— not our behavior, good or bad (thank God)— but our belief. Our faith. The only basis on which he judges now is on our simple trust that he’s gotten out of the judgment game. It’s in your Bible, man: “There is therefore now no judgment for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“It’s “There is therefore now no condemnation not no judgment.”” he tried to correct me.
“It’s the same word,” I said. “Krima. Judgment. Condemnation. Krima. Same word. And when St. Paul says in Christ Jesus, he’s talking not about behavior but about baptism.”
It was right about then I became aware that I was creating a scene.
But I didn’t care.
Standing there, needing to buy a necktie I could wear beside a four-foot coffin for a boy I’d baptized, let’s just say, it was not an academic debate.
“When the owner of the vineyard comes back, what do you think he’ll do to those wicked tenants? And they said to Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.
Pay attention, this is important.
Jesus tells all of his parables of judgment in the space of four days before his crucifixion—
that’s the interpretative key to them.
We’re supposed to read the parables of judgment as pointers to the cross.
You see, it’s not that after three years of preaching about God’s bargain free grace and bottomless forgiveness Jesus suddenly gave up and decided to preach instead like John the Baptist. The Gospel is not a bait and switch. Jesus doesn’t take away with these parables of judgment the grace he already gave with his left-hand.
The judgment at the center of these dark parables is the cross.
When you read them in light of the cross, you discover that the parables of judgment, every bit as much as that one about the father and the fatted calf, are Gospel not Law.
The cross is our judgment— Jesus already told you that at the very beginning of the Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.”
He’s talking about the cross.
It’s likewise with Paul. “God made Jesus to be our wickedness,” Paul writes, “…and through the cross God put to death— krima’d— the enmity between humanity and God.”
The cross is our judgment.
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they tell Jesus.
And Jesus doesn’t correct them or contradict them because they’re right. We’re all put to death in him. “Do you not know,” the Bible promises, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we have been buried with him by baptism into his death for sins so that we might be raised up with him.”
That promise is no different than the promise with which Jesus ends the parable today.
Our judgment on the cross is the cornerstone of God’s new creation.
All that the world has to do now to escape judgment is to trust that in Jesus Christ you’ve already escaped it.
And that’s red-letter: “God the Father judges no one,” Jesus says, “God has given over all judgment to the Son…and he who trusts in him is not judged.”
Let me make it plain.
GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU.
Even if God should be.
God’s forgiven you for every single thing— and that thing too you’re now thinking about in your head.
God’s not mad at you.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve left undone.
On account of Jesus Christ— propterChristum, the first Protestants liked to say— God literally doesn’t give a damn.
After Jesus Christ announces from his cross “It is finished,” there is now— for those who trust it— nothing but the “blessed silence of his uncondemnation.”
No matter who you are or what you’ve done.
There is no case against you. There is no indictment filed. There is no evidence locked away in storage. There’s not even a courtroom for you to exhibit all your good works.
There is therefore now no judgment.
Because when the Judge came back to his vineyard, he came carrying not a gavel in his hands but nails. He returned wrapped not in a Judge’s robe but naked.
What Jesus says at the end of this parable is dead on— the indiscriminate acceptance of his uncondemnation, it crushes those of us who persist in our stubborn belief that God’s judgment is about rewarding the rewardable.
God’s free grace isn’t just a stumbling block to those of us who insist on supposing that being well-behaved is more important to God than just trusting his forgiveness.
It breaks people like us to pieces.
It kills people like us who’d prefer to think of ourselves as good than loved.
In the end, that’s what’s so scary about this parable of judgment.
You and I— the quick and the dead— we’re slow to believe that all he’s ever wanted was for us to believe.