‘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 watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 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.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. – Matthew 21:33-46
No political figure or corporate executive today could hold a candle to Jesus’ ability to avoid a question. Jesus almost never gives a straight answer, either to his friends or to his enemies. Instead, he answers a question with another question, tells a rambling story, or writes in the dirt.
But time and time again throughout the Gospels, the problem is not that Jesus doesn’t give an answer. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t give the answer his questioners want to hear. He knows this will happen, and so Jesus does what Emily Dickinson said in a poem: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Jesus stands in a long line of prophets who speak truth to power by way of parables. A parable is a story that illustrates a point. And these stories are told, not to avoid the question, but to draw the listener in so they can hear the answer.
More often than not, the point to be made is one about the person asking the question. One of the best Old Testament examples of this approach comes in 2 Samuel 12. King David has had his affair with Bathsheba; he has had her husband Uriah killed. So God sends the prophet Nathan to David. But instead of condemning the king outright, Nathan tells a story.
Nathan describes to David how a rich man with many flocks of sheep took the one lamb that a poor man had raised from birth. This so he could prepare a meal for a guest without taking an animal from his own herd. When David hears this, he is outraged at the injustice and declares that the rich man should be put to death.
Nathan is ready for this. David is blind to his own sin but is more than ready to condemn that of another man. Nathan says to David, “You are the man!” And David stands condemned by his own words and must confess his sin before God.
Nathan told the truth and told it slant—the only way David could hear it. And so it is with the parable of the wicked tenants. The chief priests and the elders have challenged Jesus’ authority, asking him from where does it come? Jesus responds by telling them this story—which, of course, is all about the chief priests and elders. They are the ones who have beaten and killed the servants of the lord, who have not produced the fruits of the kingdom, who have succumbed to greed and violence.
Many interpreters are tempted to take this parable as an allegory for the history of Israel. The wicked tenants, they say, are the Jews; the landowner is God, and his son is Jesus. The Jews kill God’s prophets and eventually God’s son, and so they are thrown out and the vineyard is given to another people—the Gentiles.
Let me make this clear: this interpretation of this passage is not only wrong but also dangerous. This reading of Matthew 21 has fueled anti-Semitism over the centuries, leading to the pogroms, the Crusades, and the Holocaust—all in the perverted name of a Christian God. If anyone invites you to interpret this story as a story of Jews vs. Christians, I would encourage you to politely decline that offer.
Because Jesus wasn’t drawing a line between Jews and Christians. Jesus was drawing a line within Judaism itself (see Susan Grove Eastman, “Matthew 21:33-46” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4). Jesus was speaking to his community, the Jews, God’s chosen people, those who had been entrusted with the vineyard of God’s creation and God’s coming kingdom. Jesus was drawing a line between those who honored that responsibility and those who did not.
We can draw such lines within Christianity today. If we think about it, we may find that the greatest enemies of the faith are not nonbelievers but believers who pervert the teachings of Christ. Misrepresenting Jesus for selfish means is a far greater rejection of him than unbelief.
The wicked tenants in Matthew 21 reject the landowner’s representatives repeatedly and violently, all so that they might have the landowner’s riches for themselves. Their brutality is startling in how unabashed it is and in how it escalates.
But there is something perhaps more puzzling than the tenants’ violent behavior, and that is the behavior of the landowner. There is an obvious question when reading this story: why does the landowner keep sending slaves to these people?
The Brick Testament is a somewhat irreverent illustration of parts of the Bible using Lego figures. I love to check in with it as part of my exegetical work, because it often represents Scripture in a way we wouldn’t immediately think to read it. This parable is one of the stories you can see represented by Legos. The Brick Testament’s retelling of the story points to the near insanity of the landowner’s approach.
In the Brick Testament’s version, the landowner sends first one servant, and then another, both of whom are beaten and sent away empty-handed. As he sends the third servant to give it a try, the Lego landowner calls out, “Good luck!” And that servant is killed. Later, as the landowner sends a whole group of servants after multiple others have died, he calls out, “Don’t forget to get a receipt!”
The comments are so absurd as to be morbid. But that is exactly how ridiculous the landowner’s actions are. You would think that after one servant was beaten by tenants who refused to pay their fair share, the landowner would march down to the vineyard and evict them himself. But instead, he keeps sending men to ask for the harvest. He doesn’t even equip them to defend themselves or to fight back. Again and again he sends unarmed servants to gather the fruits of the vineyard, until finally he sends his own son.
Maybe this story isn’t about the tenants at all. Maybe it is about the landowner. Jesus does warn of the coming judgment, but even in this story that hasn’t happened yet. God still comes to us again and again, asking to see the fruits of the kingdom, foolishly sending his servants one after the other to be rejected, not because God is crazy or stupid but because God loves us.
If we serve a God whose servants, whose own son is rejected, then we will see Christ most clearly in those who are rejected by this world. The parable of the forbearing landowner, as I’ll call it, comes right at the end of Matthew 21. Chapter 22 opens with the story of the wedding banquet. A king throws a party for his son’s wedding, but everyone he invites either has something more important to do or mistreats the servants who bring their invitation. The king is outraged and sends his servants out with a charge to invite anyone and everyone, right off the street, and so the banquet is filled with guests.
What is offered at the communion table is not offered in a vacuum. We are called to extend this table to everyone, to all who are rejected and outcast, to everyone out on the street. Our youth will put this into practice today with Love Thy Neighbor as they share a meal with our homeless neighbors. And on Thursday, a mission team will travel to Haiti to share life with people who have been rejected by their government and by most of the world.
The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. If you pay attention to the produce available in supermarkets, you will find a great deal of uniformity in the size, shape, and color of the fruits and vegetables available for purchase. But if you’ve ever had a garden, you know most food doesn’t look that way. Every years, literally tons and tons of perfectly good food is rejected and thrown out because it doesn’t fit these aesthetic specification.
And so, in response to this fact and the EU’s declaration, French grocer Intermarché
started a campaign called Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables. They purchased produce that was misshapen but perfectly good to eat, gave it its own packaging, and marketed “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.”
Today, we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Today, all across the globe, Christians are celebrating this sacred meal that offers undeserved grace to everyone. The fruits of the kingdom grow wherever we seek our rejected God among the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, wherever we find something lovable in the grotesque, the ridiculous, the hideous, the failed, the disfigured, the ugly, and the unfortunate in each one of us.
Our Methodist theology affirms what we call prevenient grace, the grace that goes before us. That is, God’s grace is at work in us even before we know it, even before we can respond. God’s grace is always working in us t to make us ready to move from rejecting God’s love to accepting it, and from accepting it to extending it.
Jan Richardson offers this blessing for World Communion Sunday. I’ll close with her words:
And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
And our sorrow
will be met
And we will open our hands
to the feast
And we will turn
toward each other
And we will give up
And we will taste
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
will be the feast.
The table is wide. All are welcome to partake of the inglorious fruits of the kingdom. Everyone is welcome, and everywhere is the feast. Amen.