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“The Terrible Tenants, and a Surprise Ending”

Oct.16, 2011 R&D Sunday Mt.21:33-45


What would it be like to have your home demolished by a natural catastrophe, then to receive back an entirely new one without cost? Would you feel ‘entitled’ to the replacement - or appreciative and grateful?
    Our Relief & Development handout tells the story of Anyol and his family from Haiti whose home crumbled into dust with the massive earthquake. All their belongings were lost; there was no community support. They gathered sticks, plastic, and cloth to make a crude flimsy shelter. But they were later chosen by the EMCC for help from the “Homes for Haiti Fund”. It says, “The smile on Madame Anyol’s face grew larger and larger as the trim, solid house neared completion.Tears streamed down Anyol’s face as he was handed the keys.” Isn’t that wonderful? They definitely appreciated what they’d been given.
    In Matthew 21, Jesus told a story not very different - a story in which tenants were entrusted with a well-built income-earning property; but there the outcome was much different. They felt entitled to it, resentful toward the giver. Their attitude was poisoned by eagerness to ‘grab’, rather than grace. And the story concluded with a shock ending for the listeners!


Before we get into the story itself, it would help to understand the context - both Jesus’ immediate setting, and the larger setting of how ‘things get done’ by the powerful back in the Middle East. First, consider Jesus’ immediate setting. The forces arrayed against Jesus at this point in His ministry are mounting.John 11:53 reveals that, after Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, “from that day on they [ the Jewish leaders] plotted to take his life.” Four verses later we find out, “the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him.” The warrant was out for His arrest! If you knew where Jesus was, it was your ‘civic duty’ to report it to the authorities.
    Friction mounted as Jesus continued to challenge the power-brokers. There was the great parade we call the Triumphal Entry; John notes the crowd was so big partly because they’d heard of the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 12:18). Then came Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, upsetting the tables of the money-changers and merchants; Matthew records that the leaders were “indignant” (Mt 21:15). But Jesus had a couple of factors in His favour: He operated with great secrecy, and was very elusive when not teaching the crowds; also, He enjoyed immense popularity amongst the common folk (remember, He’s in the ‘most wanted’ category but nobody’s ratting Him out), so the leaders couldn’t arrest Him when He was out in public for fear they’d be mobbed. 21:46, “They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” 26:5, they plotted to arrest Jesus and kill Him, “"But not during the Feast," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."”
    So you get this increasing tension, like an ominous thundercloud of the murderous power-brokers following Jesus around waiting for an opportune moment: yet there’s the opposing force of His great popularity, protecting Him as long as He’s out in plain view in the public square.
    Step back a bit to the larger context of how business was done in politics in the Middle East back in those days. Tyrants, despots, and emperors ruled. The typical leadership style of rulers back then could best be described as ‘brutal’: it doesn’t go far enough to say just ‘heavy-handed’. Back in 1Kings 21, King Ahab mirrors the governing paradigm of other kings in his day when he takes possession of Naboth’s vineyard (actually it’s his wife Jezebel who arranges Naboth’s trial and murder on false charges of treason). In Jezebel’s view, if you’re a king, “you want it - you take it.” To a pining Ahab feeling constrained by Israel’s divinely-given law that protected family inheritance and property rights, she blurts, “Is this how you act as king over Israel?...I’ll get you the vineyard.” The only ‘golden rule’ of Jezebel was “she who has the gold, makes the rules.”
    Or consider a more recent example from just a few decades before Jesus’ ministry. After Herod the Great died in 4BC, there was a bit of a power vacuum in Palestine until the estate got settled by Rome. Riots and rebellion broke out in Jerusalem and the countryside. The Roman governor of neighbouring Syria was named Varus. A history book states: “As brigandage, terror, and anarchy spread, Varus’ response was swift.” He took his legions of soldiers and 4 cavalry troops and marched from the north down to Jerusalem, driving out rebels. When they took one Galilean city named Sepphoris, they sold its inhabitants into slavery and burned the city. Further south, they looted and burned Arus and Sappho; the village of Emmaus was burned on Varus’ orders. Upon reaching Jerusalem, some 2,000 rebels were crucified.
    So, rulers did not take rebellion lightly; it was dealt with quickly and harshly. At least, it seems that’s how the Romans managed a successful empire.


Keep those dynamics in mind as we now hear the story Jesus told.  The context puts some things in a different light.
    V33, we have the owner’s major investment: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard.He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower.” Don’t pass over those too lightly: you’ve got to BUY the place; tear up the soil to get rid of the weeds; buy good vine rootstock; plant it and water it; put up a protective wall or hedge; dig a winepress, often a trough out of solid rock into which the juice would flow as it was pressed; and build a watchtower-shelter, a raised wooden platform rabbis prescribed to be 15 feet high and 6 feet square. I mean, you’ve got a lot invested here, you’ve ploughed a lot of time and effort and resources into Judean Valley Winery Inc! You want to find the right kind of workers to look after it and bring some profit from it to reward your investment.
    Now, Jesus’ choice of this metaphor SHOULD have started ringing some bells for his listeners. Psalm 80(8f) and Isaiah 5(1f) both talk of God planting Israel as a choice vine that spread out, flourished, and filled the countryside. So the imagery of a vineyard should have tipped them off He might be referring to THEM in some way. But they got so drawn into the story they must’ve let that thought slip into the background.
    The landowner planted a vineyard... A question for reflection here: How has God invested in my life? With what gifts and abilities has He entrusted me?
    Well, it was a promising start for the little vineyard enterprise; but, you know how it is in real estate – you have to be choosy about your renters, or you can wind up with some real winners! This time it seems the landowner drew the short straw. We read on: “...Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.”
    Y’know, it should have been pretty straightforward: he rented or leased the vineyard. That involves some kind of lease agreement, clearly setting forth the terms - so much money or fruit etc each year as rent payment. He was clearly owed his share of the crop. Just one problem: no way were these plotters going to ante-up. They beat one servant, killed another, stoned another. Brutal! These tenants somehow had nurtured a sense of entitlement; they were boldly trying to seize what’s not theirs.
    A second question for reflection here: Is there evidence that would indicate I ignore God and try to run life MY way, making others casualties? Who might I have inadvertently ‘beaten up’ in my push to get ahead?
    Now, take a step back here and recall our discussion of context – how business was usually done by landowners and rulers in the ancient world. If something like this was going on, you didn’t let it slide: you’d react firmly and quickly - these rebels needed to be taught a lesson. The landowner’s advisors must have been telling him, “You need to make an example of them or else your other renters are going to try pulling the same stunt.” So, what do you do? Call in the local soldiers. Kill those who murdered your servants; maybe their families too, burn down their houses – you know, the ‘usual’. “We’ll get Jezebel on that right away.”
    But, wait – despite the conventional wisdom his advisors must have been giving him, the landowner takes a different tack. He repeats his attempt to collect what’s due him. V36, “Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” Like, what did he expect?! But this highlights the extreme PATIENCE of the owner. He didn’t write them off with the first trespass, but gave them another chance.
    Is God patient? 2Peter 3:9, “The Lord is...patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God is love, John tells us (1Jn 4:8,16); Paul adds that “Love is patient, love is kind...it is not easily angered.” The landowner’s remarkable patience reflects a loving God’s patience toward us sinners, giving us a second chance through the good news about Jesus and the cross, not wanting anyone to perish.
    The last part of v33 said the landowner ‘went away on a journey’. To many people today, that’s where God is – away, not part of the picture. To such folk it seems save to ignore, rebel against, or outright disbelieve in Jesus; He has allowed them that space or room in which to choose to rebel. But it’s only for a season. As in the story, eventually the landowner returns, and judgment happens. Don’t presume upon God’s patience, or you risk terrible judgment for your soul!
    So, after the second batch of would-be rent-collector servants are beaten and killed and pelted to death with rocks, how does the landowner respond? Does he ‘get it’ and lower the boom? No, he gives them one more chance, and ups the stakes significantly. V37, “Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” The word in the Greek for ‘respect’ can mean ‘have regard for’, revere.
    Now, if you were this man’s advisor at this point, would you be in favour of this approach? “WHAT?! They’ve already killed two parties of your servants, and now you want to send in your son - the only legal offspring who can carry on the family business? Are you CRAZY? Have you gone nuts? Send in the police, already, and scorch the place!”
    So, by this time, we’re not very surprised at the outcome in vv38f, the tenants’ treasonous opportunism: “when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir.Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Remember that 15-foot-high watchtower the landowner had constructed? You could do some serious damage to someone by chucking them off that! Not only did they kill the rightful heir, they made a point of doing it shamefully, “threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
    Now, if our landowner by this time seems a little clueless, the tenants aren’t much brighter: they suppose by killing the heir they can grab the inheritance? Fat chance! That’s what laws, and courts, and government backed by the sword are for. He’s still the landowner, you’re still a mere tenant. So in the rebellious tenants we see the blindness of greed: their unreasoning grabbiness, it makes no sense.
    A third question to think about here: What welcome do I give the Son? To what degree am I receptive to Jesus’ interference in my affairs? Do I receive Him or reject Him and His rightful claim to my followership?
    At this climax of the story, projecting out from the immediate landowner to the ultimate Almighty owner of all that exists, we’re left with this picture of God’s lavish, near-crazy, ever-so-patient, unthinkably gracious dealings with us. “Crazy Love.”


Just here we see Jesus’ masterful construction and telling of the parable is a set-up: His listeners have walked right into its drama, maybe especially the chief priests and Pharisees, the religious elite who were very well-endowed and property-conscious. Now, this is long before the day of DVDs with alternate endings, but Jesus allows that option: He pauses and invites the crowd to suggest their own preferred ending to the tale. V40, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  No doubt in their minds – without hesitation, as with one voice the crowd cries out (v41), “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end...and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Those terrible tenants who acted so appallingly would finally get their comeuppance. Justice would be served - and it was long overdue. Evil people would endure evil consequences; there was a fittingness to their fate.
    Talk about a wretched end: remember the symbolism of the vineyard being Israel in the Old Testament prophetic view? It’s estimated some 1.1 million Jews perished in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans in 70 AD. Did Jesus wince when they said, “Wretched end?”
    Although the crowd has supplied what they perceive should be an appropriate ending, Jesus has a surprising, shocking twist awaiting them. In vv42-44 He applies the story to them, as if THEY are the terrible tenants! V43 is strongest, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” A people - ethne - usually referring to the Gentiles. So Paul heard Jesus sending him to the Gentiles, and by the second century the church was largely composed of non-Jews (Acts 22:21).
    Given to others who will produce its fruit: really, giving the owner his share of the fruit was the goal all along, wasn’t it? V34 “to collect his fruit”, 41 “give him his share of the crop.” Are you being fruitful for God? Are you stewarding wisely the gifts He’s invested into your life?
    Interestingly, Jesus sandwiches this saying about the Kingdom (v43) in between two verse about some ‘stone’, an image He lifts from Psalm 118(22f), a worship-liturgy passage that would be extremely familiar to his listeners. As if the Kingdom hinges on what you make of this stone. In 41 the builders rejected it, but the Lord has made it the ‘head’ cornerstone. In 43, it’s like it’s a living dangerous stone: if you fall on it, you’ll be shattered or broken to pieces, but if it falls on you, you’ll be crushed - ground to powder.
    What is this stone? It must be ‘the’ Rock of Reference, the primary Reality you have to orient yourself around in life.  Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a statue that was struck and demolished by a rock cut out not by human hands; the rock filled the whole earth (Dan 2:34f). Jesus, the Living Stone as Peter calls Him (1Pet 2:4), supercedes all earth’s kingdoms and our temporal constructs. He is the ultimate reference point by which our life’s goodness or wickedness is judged. The primary question with which people must wrestle is this: What will I do with Jesus? What do you make of Him? What do YOU suppose was going on at the cross, if not the salvation of many sinners?


In a way, Relief and Development Sunday reminds us in the relatively prosperous West that WE have been entrusted with much in this ‘vineyard’ in which we find ourselves. What ‘fruit’ is God looking for from us? Are we going to be like the terrible tenants, who thought they were ‘entitled’ to the whole package, who refused stubbornly and brutally to yield the landowner His due?
    Most days we probably don’t give much thought to how close to the top of the world’s wealth pyramid we actually are – how rich are the resources we take for granted. A “Meeting House” podcast featuring Christa Hesselink had some statistics that startled me. (See wikipedia “International Inequality”) For instance, “The richest 1% of people in the world receive as much as the bottom 57%, or in other words, less than 50 million richest people receive as much as 2.7 billion poor.” If you want to look at those right at the top of the heap: “The 3 richest people possess more financial assets than the poorest 10% of the world’s population, combined.” These top 3 people (as of May 2005) “have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the 47 countries with the least GDP.”
    “Ah, well,” you say, “that’s those filthy-rich people right at the top; I’m nowhere near them.” Oh, aren’t you now? “An American having the average income of the bottom US decile [ie tenth] is better-off than 2/3 of world population.” To be a member of the top 10% of the world wealth distribution requires about $61,000 – I suspect some of us would qualify for that. Additionally, “The top 10% of adults own 85% of global household wealth.” So – that means the other 15% of global household wealth has to be spread out amongst the remaining 90% of the world’s people. Quite a contrast! What a disparity! Did you know you were so close to the top 10%?
    Are we fruitful, reliable tenants – or grabby, rebellious, possessive ones presuming we’re ‘entitled’ to it all? In the Biblical view, when we help the poor, we lend to God and honour God. Consider these verses: Proverbs 14:31, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” 19:17, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.” And Jesus’ own account of the King judging between the sheep and the goats – what was the main difference? “The King will reply [to the sheep], ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Mt 25:40) For the goats, it was - ‘whatever you did NOT do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Mt 25:45)
    The Lord calls us to guard against the grabby greed of the rebellious tenants, and instead lavish crazy love like the patient ‘nutty’ landowner. We close today with a video from the Homes for Haiti project accompanied by Matt Maher’s song, “Hold Us Together”: love makes me my brother’s keeper. [Homes_For_Haiti_2.flv] Let’s pray.