Alrighty then, we have another parable in front of us. What is it that parables do? They try to impart a truth to Jesus’ hearers in terms that are easily understood. The first question we should ask ourselves when the word Parable comes up is, “What is Jesus trying to say to the people around him?” He wasn’t talking to us; he was talking to people a couple of thousand years ago. What would this mean to them?
This is particularly important in today’s reading because the ‘they’ in today’s story are the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the religious leaders of the day. They are the religious elite of the time. And they’re arguing with Jesus.
Jesus has something of a thing going on and the religious leaders don’t know quite what to make of it. He has been running around for three years as the Son of God. He’s been healing and raising from the dead. He’s made blind men see and healed all kinds of people. And now he has come to Jerusalem and is preaching and teaching in the temple.
The religious leaders don’t quite know what to make of it. They’re watching all of this healing and miracle business transpire and they’re unsure what to do. What emotion comes out when we’re unsure of something? Usually being unsure of something generates fear. I had lunch with a friend last week and our server had been on the job for three days. He was completely unsure of himself and flat out terrified.
These guys that Jesus is talking with are unsure of what to make of Jesus and so they are afraid. Very afraid. They are kind of thinking that Jesus is a threat to them but they’re not entirely sure. If Jesus is coming to take over then they are afraid of losing their positions and losing their authority. If people start listening to this Jesus fella then they might not listen to them and having the people not listen to what they say is something the religious leaders can’t deal with.
So they attempt to trap Jesus into saying something they can put him on trial for. They’re just waiting for him to say the wrong thing the wrong way.
Have you ever been interviewed for TV, radio or newspaper? I hate doing those interviews because I always end up sounding like a dork. What I was meaning to say in my head is not quite how it gets captured in the interview. It’s kind of like that with Jesus but in his case they’re intentionally trying to put words into his mouth.
It doesn’t quite work out the way they intend. They want to trap him into saying he is the Son of God but because he IS the Son of God it doesn’t work the way they wanted it to. Jesus, not being one who just sits around and takes it instead responds with this parable.
It starts out innocently enough. A landowner builds a vineyard. Puts a fence up and installs all the equipment. Plants the vines and then hires some tenants to do the actual farming. And then he leaves for another country. No details on the hows and the whys we just know that he is an absentee landlord. Nothing special here. That kind of thing is pretty common, even today.
Where it gets dicey is when it is time to pay the rent. The tenants have done their work and there has been a harvest. The landowner sends a slave to collect his portion of the harvest. This shouldn’t have been too much of a thing since that is also how it works. You rent someone’s vineyard and the owner gets a share of the harvest.
Something goes wrong here. Rather than sending the slave back with the landowners rightful due, the tenants beat him up and send him back empty handed. Well then. That’s not right but it isn’t so far out of the realm of believable.
Here’s where things begin to point to a higher meaning of some sort. For whatever reason, the landlord sends another slave to collect his portion of the harvest. Same thing happens only the slave is beaten about the head and shoulders AND is insulted.
This would start to sound kind of funny as a Three Stooges skit but it kind of goes downhill. The landowner keeps sending his slaves, one after the other and the wicked tenants kill them one after the other. You would think after all that mess that the landowner would do something horrific in vengeance for all the insults directed at him. Finally, he sends his son and the wicked tenants continue their constant and unwavering stream of disobedience.
Why, landowner would you keep trying? What is it about you that makes you keep sending your servants? Why, landowner would you send your son?
We can ask the same question in a different way. Why God, would you keep trying with us? Why, God, would you send your son for us?
God is continually gracious. Repeatedly and ongoingly gracious. Whatever the tenants have done there is another chance. If we read it as the landowner is God and God repeatedly sends servants to be beaten and killed God comes off as a little bit heartless to those that he has created and sent. But if we hear it as the servants being God’s love and forgiveness that God repeatedly and ongoingly sends to the tenants, sends to us, then God seems a bit different.
This isn’t a story about bad people it’s a story about a gracious God. We’re all bad in some way or another. We’re all unsure in some way or another. We’re all afraid in some way or another. And God keeps trying. God keeps coming to us with grace and forgiveness. God sends us Jesus with hope for salvation and hope for eternal life.