The Parable of the Tenants

This Sunday, we return for another look at the Parable of the Tenants, this time through the lens of the Gospel according to Matthew. What was Jesus trying to communicate to his original hearers, in what ways does Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words differ from Mark’s, and what does Jesus want today’s church to know or learn from this important parable? Join us for week 4 in “Parables: Lessons for Living.”

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The Parable of the Tenants

The Parable of the Tenants is a microcosm of human history, and the story of human history is a macrocosm of the Parable of the Tenants.

Louis Glickman once said, “The best investment on Earth is Earth.” For many, the dream of land ownership is a lifelong dream or a dream come true.

Henry David Thoreau once said, in Life in the Woods, “We need the tonic of wildness…at the same time we are all earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

One of the places we can find a curious combination of the tamed and the untamed is on a farm, grove, orchard, or vineyard.

There, we want plants to do their natural thing, to grow, bear fruit, so that we can creatively cultivate, harvest, and enjoy their bounty. No matter how advanced our society, we still need food to eat, still depend on the fruit of the soil for sustenance and nourishment.

Jesus told many stories about agriculture, nature, and our dependence on and relationship with the earth. One such story is one that we heard recently from Mark’s account in Mark 12. Today, hear again the Parable, or the lesson, of the Tenants, found in Matthew 21:33-46 (NIV).

The Parable of the Tenants

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 “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. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 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.

Jesus tells this story following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, entering the temple, and encountering a fruitless fig tree. He was steeped in people, religious practice, and agriculture, making a ripe environment for the lesson.

Just two weeks ago, Rev. Tim Ensworth preached a sermon on this Parable from Mark’s point of view. As we were hiking out to Wing Island together, Rev. Tim noted that in Mark’s account, Jesus tells what will happen to the unfaithful tenants, whereas in Matthew’s account, the pronouncement comes from the mouths of Jesus’ listeners. What may seem like a subtle difference is actually a helpful reminder that we have a say in our life story. Jesus’ listeners may not have agreed with what he strongly implied or clearly said, but they seemed well enough familiar with the concept of poetic justice, or just fruits, to be able to supply their own, fitting ending.

The Parable of the Tenants is such a fascinating story. At once wild and tamed, discovered and unexplored, clear and unclear…all at the same time. Like the Parable of the Sower and Liminal Space, the two other messages in our series, it reminds us of an important, key lesson in life:

Cultivate your heart with an eye to God’s design in order to lead a life pleasing to God.

This may sound easy, or it may sound like a tall order, depending on how we’ve conditioned ourselves to follow God’s leading in the everyday details of our lives.

Let’s think for a moment about some of the other parables Jesus taught his followers and their lessons to see if we can find some common elements.

  • The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13) – which reminds us that great results can come from small things
  • The Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13) – with its lesson a little influence goes a long way
  • The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13) – when we find something of great worth, hold on!
  • (All three of those parables are told in Matthew 13.)
  • The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18) – showing us God generously looks after us and all our needs
  • The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18) – to forgive if we expect to receive forgiveness
  • The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20) – God’s generosity exceeds all our efforts and expectations
  • The Parable of the Two Sons – that we ought to both act and speak faithfully (Matthew 21)
  • The Parable of the Ten Virgins – keep your lamps trimmed and burning, and always be prepared to welcome Jesus (Matthew 25)

To me, these parables speak of the importance of intentionality. It can be easy to get caught up drifting in life from one thing to the next, one service to the next, one song to the next, one year to the next; Jesus reminds us to be fully present in each moment, to understand the power that we have been given by belonging to God, and to use consistently what we have to bring glory to God.

One such example I can think of in human history, that I was speaking to a friend about recently, is the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the great empires in the history of the world.

Among its storied musicians were composers like Franz Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Bela Bartok. Vienna, Austria, has been called “The City of Music” with the history of famous musicians like Beethoven and Mozart.

Salzburg, the city of salt, is known for its history of salt, trade, and gold. If you’ve been to Salzburg, you may have taken a salt tunnel tour, gotten on a boat in an underground waterway, and learned about how salt at times held a worth similar to gold.

The word “salary” comes from a word meaning salt, speaking of a person’s weight of worth. Salt was an important way to preserve things before the advent of refrigeration. Remember that Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). We aren’t just here on earth to give it flavor; we’re here to preserve the culture and the world from needless destruction and decay.

Imagine then, if you will, receiving a parable of Jesus, recognizing its great value and worth, but not listening to its lesson. Imagine governing a great empire and having your military coup and refuse to let you govern, taking control through its own power. Imagine discovering gold and owning a gold mine, then having your workers decide they deserved the gold more than you, and despite your best efforts, they refused to acknowledge your rightful claim.

If you can imagine one of those scenarios, perhaps you can identify with the frustration of the vineyard owner when his own workers decided they wanted the vineyard to be their own and were willing to take it by force and at all costs, including the life of the owner’s son. It’s a stark example about the tenuous balance of power we sometimes see in the world.

What do you suppose we can learn from this parable today?

For me, it can be helpful to find points of access into the story. With that in mind, where might you see yourself as part of the story of the tenants?

  1. You might see yourself as the vineyard owner, accomplished, established, but unable to enjoy the profound benefits of your work, wishing you could do so.
  2. You might see yourself as a servant, sent to share God’s message of love and hope with a hostile world.
  3. You might identify with the beloved child, knowing that you are dearly loved in God’s eyes, but feeling like others only see your worth as a means to their own ends and benefits.
  4. Perhaps you see yourself as a tenant, entrusted with caring for God’s property. How you respond makes all the difference in your outcome.
  5. Maybe you see yourself as the vineyard God has planted, being part of the church, meant to bear good fruit for God’s glory.

Where do you envision yourself in this story? How might it be an account about you and your life with Christ?

How you see yourself makes a great difference in your narrative as it helps to define the outcome of your role.

  • (Owner) Will you reclaim what is rightfully yours and justice be served?
  • (Servant) Will your mission to spread hope, truth, grace, and mercy have successful results?
  • (Child) Will others see your worth and honor it, or reject you based on their own ambitions?
  • (Tenants) Will you choose to guard what God has lovingly provided, or will you stubbornly claim it as your own, refusing to give up what you have been entrusted?
  • (Vineyard) Will you bear the fruit of the Spirit, and will your fruits be shared freely, or guarded selfishly?

Five paths, five outcomes, choices to be made, destinies to be had.

It takes a level of creativity to view our lives through the lens of scripture. We can ask the Lord to reveal to us what it is we need to see about ourselves, where we can change, grow, or learn, how we can be faithful doers of God’s word.

Isn’t it a comfort to know that no matter how we see ourselves in this story, God already sees us completely? We can bring our hurts, our needs, our wishes for the future to the text and before the Lord.

  • Some of us long for Acceptance: we just wish someone would embrace us as we are, imperfections and all, and embrace the wonderful reflection of God’s creativity we are made to be.
  • Some of us long for Visibility: oh to be seen, oh to have our skills recognized, appreciated, to be wanted, to feel wanted.
  • Some of us long for Empathy: we just want to be understood, to be heard at a deeper than surface level, to have our needs validated, our viewpoint seen as being worthwhile.

I read a story in the news recently about four children whose plane went down in the Amazon and who miraculously survived in the jungle. (NBC News)

Like a story from the Bible about Jesus in the wilderness or Daniel in the den of lions, these four children, aged 13, 9, 4, and 1, survived the wildness of the Amazon jungle for 40 days and were rescued by an operation covering 1,600 miles of rainforest. NBC News reported how they were rescued early last month on Friday, June 9. Some of us need rescuing.

Some of us are like the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable, needing our master to come find and restore us.

I came across another illustration on social media I found helpful. Have you read about the winding brick walls of England?

In England, it is not uncommon to see “wavy” brick walls. Interestingly, the design uses fewer bricks than a straight wall. A straight wall that is just one brick thick is not sturdy enough to stand alone and can be easily toppled, so they generally have a thickness of at least two or more layers of bricks, and are also reinforced at regular intervals with vertical posts serving as buttresses. But a wavy “one-brick” wall stands just fine on its own due to the arch support provided by its shape, which combines both wall and buttress. Such a structure is called a “crinkle crankle wall” – the Old English version of “zig zag.”

Some of us need a little weave in our walk, a creative approach to a traditional task, to think creatively about tradition and purpose and employ the reason God gave us to come up with creative new possibilities.

Jared Dees has some important insights to share with us about today’s text. Let’s listen in.  (Video: The Parable of the Tenants Reflection – YouTube)

Dees reminds us that we are here to make disciples and to share God’s good news. That’s our goal, that’s our mission and our purpose as Jesus’ followers. In our task:

  • We should be prepared for rejection as Jesus taught at the end of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.
  • We should bear fruit in keeping with the Spirit who lives in us.
  • There should be evidence in our lives, on a daily basis, of a faithful witness for Christ.

To a world longing for acknowledgement, we can freely share the message that God knows our pain, that Jesus has felt what you feel.

To a world seek validation and visibility, we offer the hope that God sees you and looks on you with favor.

To people hungry for empathy, we have been entrusted with the message that “You are heard, accepted, valued, and loved.” Let’s not selfishly guard that message for only ourselves to enjoy; let’s model it in all our relationships and interactions!

Jesus invites us into the abundant life. Like in his parable about the tenants, change, transformation, and new fruit are coming in our world today.

Will you be an agent of change for God’s good, or will you fiercely resist, holding your ground and guarding what you have?

Will you be an agent of transformation and spiritual preservation, or will you lose your saltiness?

Will you look to the new thing and the new fruit that is springing up, or will you miss it because of the many good things God has done in the past?

As a church and as individuals, how we respond makes all the difference.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the gift of perspective. Thank you for meeting us on this journey of life and claiming us as your own. We recognize that all the good we have has come from your hand. So, help us to live with open hands, ready to bless others, ready to welcome you, and not to respond with hardness of heart. Where the places in our hearts have turned to stone, give us hearts of flesh, both to beat with empathy and to be filled with love for our neighbors. These things we ask through Jesus’ name. Amen.

Questions for Discussion & Reflection:

  1. Where do you see yourself in the Parable of the Tenants? Who do you relate to?
  2. What are some differences between Mark’s account (Mark 12) and Matthew’s account (Matthew 21) of this parable?
  3. How does Genesis 2 remind us of the owner of the vineyard and the tenants in Matthew 21?
  4. How does the Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32) inform our reading of Matthew’s Parable of the Tenants?
  5. Where and with whom is God calling you to express radical hospitality today?
  6. Why do you think Jesus shared this parable with his listeners, and what are some of the enduring lessons for Jesus’ followers today?
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