The Parable of the Tenants
A sermon in the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic
Reading from Matthew 21:33-46
Theme: Let us kill him and take his inheritance.
What point in the great story of redemption do we find ourselves at in this gospel reading? Chapter 21 in Matthew speaks about the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah: blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord, the good people of Jerusalem shout with joy! The son of David has arrived, Matthew likes to refer to Jesus with one of his official Messianic titles.
But all is not well in Jerusalem, so Jesus must get to work. Sweeping in like a hurricane, he clears the money lenders from the Temple – the very centre of the Jewish Cultus- then he sweeps away again to Bethany for the night; only to return to the temple early next morning.
In a sort of divine cracking of his knuckles in preparation for ‘havin’ a word wi’ the Pharisee’, he first withers a fig tree outside the temple; this is a highly charged symbol intended to highlight the state of Israel. It is quite clear that he is peeved, and that he has something important to say. Yet, as He enters the temple his manner changes, he remains confrontational, but he softens his words, He begins to ask questions and to teach the people through parables.
The driving allegory behind Jesus’ two parables is ‘the vineyard’; we know from the other assigned readings for today (Isaiah 5:7) that the vineyard is Israel and Judaea, potentially even Jerusalem itself. We know this, and the Pharisee know this; the message of Christ to them is this: despite God’s forbearance/patience his people have continued to be disobedient towards him, which has ultimately led to various disasters. In order to remedy the situation God sent numerous people to speak truth to the powers, the prophets of old, to speak to the elite of society, to the rulers, to the leaders, for it is them who bear the responsibility to the people.
Jesus is here, reminding them, that it is going to play out in that exact same way should they forget God again. The prophet Isaiah explained that the vineyard that God created, will have its hedges devoured and its walls torn down; it will be left alone to its own destruction.
However, in Jesus’ parable, the vineyard, with its meticulously erected fence, its specially dug winepress and its carefully crafted watchtower has been taken over, it is to be given to new tenants. For this new group of people, it should become their thing of beauty, their thing to cherish, their thing to be proud of. It is given to the Gentiles; it is given to us.
In our collective lifetime’s, we have seen the world change too; there is no doubt that we live in a post-God, post-Christian Society. We have grown more secular; we have seen the Church dwindle in the west. We have seen our politicians, and our senior civil servants, our leaders, publicly distance themselves from the Christian faith. We’ve seen our public institutions actively decide to remove Christian symbols from their walls, too frightened to send the wrong message, too frightened to cause offense. But we are supposed to be the new tenants of the vineyard! And here’s the thing, a wall devoid of any symbol also makes a statement. It makes a bigger statement in the things it does not say.
Did Christ worry about sending the wrong message? Did Christ worry about offending when he spoke to the leaders?
As society hastens itself away from God, it forgets the most important element at the very heart of Christianity. There is good news, it is worth sharing, it is a source of joy.
Jesus knew exactly what would happen to him in Jerusalem, He knew that when he went to the vineyard, with all the authority as the ‘Landowner’s son’ that he too would be taken outside and killed. But He did it anyway. He did it for the people back then, He did it for pharisee, and he did it for us. All those things that the leaders had continually gotten wrong, He put right. Things were not going to play out in the exact same manner this time.
So, what became of God’s vineyard, what happened to Jerusalem?
In 70AD, under the emperor Titus, Jerusalem was attacked by the Roman Legion. The walls of the city collapsed; The Temple was destroyed never to be rebuilt: the Jewish people dispersed across the ancient world and became the diaspora that we know today. The fruits that God planted continued to grow; more so, no longer contained by the walls of Jerusalem, the seed took root in other parts of the ancient word, and the realisation of what Jesus said He would do, and what He did do, became more widely known. The Word of God was heard much further afield. This is the Gospel; this is the good news at the heart of Christianity.
And as it spread it changed the world; at first within the Roman empire itself, with the freeing of the slaves and the ending of the brutal Gladiatorial games. Then it changed the wider world: Christian Churches appeared across the globe; literacy levels increase as people read the bible. Christian missions ministered to the poor, hospitals were built, Universities were founded, science and reason found a home in a religious worldview. People were afforded dignity because of the teachings of Christ; the civil rights movement began, people began to view the created world differently, more recently we’ve become more mindful of the divine command to steward the Earth. All these are works of the Spirit, all these are the uncomfortable truths that the secular world tries not to mention. Yes, Christians stumble, but in Christ we have a someone to help right us and forgive us. Someone that helps the new tenants of the borderless vineyard.
So, this is what saddens me when I think of those empty walls in our public institutions. The removal of God from everyday life. The world is a better place with the gospel in it. God has done so much for us that we cannot turn away from him nor forget Him nor stop listening when He speaks. We cannot erase Him from public life, Christians should not be quiet because Jesus was not quiet!
Verse 38 from today reads: Let us kill him but take his inheritance,
That is who we are, that is what we did, and that is what the secularist world is continuing to do. Take all the good bits of His legacy, but don’t mention God’s part in it.
As a Church, we must help people fully understand what Christ’s inheritance truly is. It is a promise of a fuller life, of a salvation beyond mere hope. As we died in Christ we so shall also rise in Christ.
Public life likes the first part. The dead Christ, removed, forgotten, out of sight. But that’s not where the story of redemption ends, it is where it begins. The promise of a restored world is our actual inheritance.
Paul writes in Ephesians 1
We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. We are called to be an honour to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ.
As the new tenants of the vineyard let us honour God, let us worship him in song and prayer and let us meet him in the receiving of the sacrament. And as we go through the week let us all move and work in that same spirit that is the corner stone of our society. Make Christ visible in a world that shies away from him.