Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. Sometimes it is simply harder to find the good news than other times. Some passages practically preach themselves and its almost an effort to find something to say without simply repeating the passage, while on the other hand, some passages need squeezing to figure out.
In order to work through the gospel passage from Matthew today, I am going to look at each of the characters of the parable Jesus tells the crowds, including the chief priests and Pharisees. We are going to start by looking at the tenants, then the servants, then the son, and lastly the landowner.
The tenants. In thinking about the tenants, I can understand how they probably had a connection to the land and the work of tending the crops and watching them grow. Working with the land brings a connection which still many farmers and gardeners know very well. Watching plants grow and become something useful and beautiful is a wonderful business. Unfortunately, the tenants also got a little greedy and covetous. They wanted what wasn't theirs for their own. They were in the business of stewardship, yet they wanted to own. They were renters, yet they wanted to be owners. They wanted to keep everything for themselves. And in a way, since they collaborated together, they were conspirators, working collectively against the landowner. They were obviously determined people. They went out of their way to do something different to each of the servants sent to them. I imagine they were normally pretty good people, and certainly didn't think of themselves as bad people. Perhaps they had felt threatened by the servants who came to collect and acted out of fear, worried they would have nothing left to live on after the owner had taken all the harvest. They were thinking about themselves first.
The servants of the landowner. They went out as sheep into the midst of wolves... especially the second group of servants. They would have known what had happened to the first bunch. Which probably would have made them question why they were going and if they should have taken some personal protection with them. Who knows, maybe they did. Yet, they followed their master's instructions and went to do as the master asked them. We don't know what they would have felt, though I imagine some trepidation on their part, not knowing what would happen. They were obedient to the landowner.
The son of the landowner. I feel bad for the son in a way and also not totally bad for the son. He didn't have too much choice in the matter, his father sent him to look after the family landownings and to take care of the family business. He did have some choice, so he could have said no. He must have realized that the situation wasn't good. If the landowner trusted his son to go do his business, then he would have already known that the two groups of servants hadn't made it back alive. He probably guessed that his future was very uncertain with the tenants. Yet, he still obeyed his father's wishes and went.
The landowner. I must admit, the landowner amazes me. He must have been a very generous and gracious man! I mean, after the tenants had killed the first bunch of servants, I would not probably have given them a second chance. I probably would have gone in there with some highly skilled security professionals to take care of business. Yet, he gives them multiple chances to do what they are supposed to do. He keeps forgiving them and showing them grace and mercy. He gives them three chances! At least, that we know about.
When Jesus asks the chief priests and Pharisees, the crowd in the Temple where he is teaching, what will happen after the son is killed, they answer by saying, “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.” Yet, what Jesus says to them next, tells them that that is not what the landowner would do. The landowner had more than enough reason to kick the tenants out before the son was killed, yet he did not do so.
Matthew tells us at the end of this passage that the chief priests and Pharisees do realize that Jesus was talking about them. They were being greedy and covetous like the tenants of what is God's. Of course, we all would like to think of ourselves in the place of the landowner or the son or the servants... gracious and generous, obedient and servant-like. Unfortunately, the real question is... how often are we like the tenants? Holding back from God, wanting what is not ours, not listening to God's messengers, or even his Son? The easy analogy is God being the landowner, Jesus being the Son, the prophets of Israel being the slaves, and sadly, the rest of humanity being the tenants.
The former Noble Prize winner in Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart." Especially in our current society, where everyone wants to blame someone else, another state, another socio-economic group, or the other political party, we have to admit we are more like those tenants than we would ever want to admit. We have choices to make, and sometimes we make them out of fear or greed, like the tenants in the story. We want to think of ourselves as good people, but sometimes evil gets the best of us.
Thankfully, like the landowner in the parable, God is full of mercy and grace and forgiveness. God gives us new chances everyday. New chances to choose the good, to choose to follow the call, to be good stewards of all the abundant gifts God has given us. Like that landowner, God will continue sending us messengers after messengers after messengers, letting us know he cares, waiting for the fruits of the Kingdom. God forgives every time we make a mistake, and helps us get back up and moving forward again. May we all use our new chances this week to choose God's kingdom. Amen.