Given at Trinity Reformed Mountville, October 5, 2008 based on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matt 21:33-46
We gather today, this Sunday which is World Communion Sunday. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the oldest and I’d say greatest symbol of the Christian church. It reflects our call to commune with the whole world, not just by breaking bread with our fellow Christian, but with the whole world. We are Christians in our neighborhood, our country, and our world. So it is ironic that the parable of the Wicked Tenants falls on this Sunday. I can’t think of a less-communal parable than this one.
I’m going to come right out and say it, I don’t like this parable. I don’t think Jesus said this, I think the early church did.
Now I think the bible is a collection of the most amazing, beautiful, deep, inspired, engaging, and DIFFICULT writings ever. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be wasting all this time in seminary studying it. The ancient rabbis said that the scriptures are like a 70-sided gem, and each time you turn the gem, the light refracts differently, giving you a reflection you haven’t seen before. And we keep turning the text again and again because we keep seeing things we missed the time before. What a beautiful metaphor.
However, when I hear people say “the bible says…” I am immediately suspicious. The bible doesn’t say ANYTHING! It sits there. It’s up to our interpretation of what it means. The great theologian Karl Barth said that "when we read the bible we aren’t reading the word of God, we’re reading FOR the word of God.”
We’re reading FOR the word of God. In that light, I can read this parable and be challenged by it and yet still recognize that God’s word is still somewhere in this story. And I really don’t have a problem with this story so much, as I do with the interpretation of this story.
So when I hear some people interpret the bible, I just want to throw up. Can I say that? Church is the place for confessing, so I guess I can. Some interpretations are dangerous to humanity.
This story is interpreted to be an allegory, which is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. The parable of the wicked tenant farmers has long been interpreted as an allegory describing the murderous lengths to which Jews would go to resist God. Murdering the SON allegorized to be Jesus was the last straw. As a result, God abandoned Israel. For the crucifixion, the Jews were to endure extreme punishment: the calling of the gentiles and the casting out of the Jews.
This parable is found in Mark (12:1-12), Luke (20:9-19, and Gospel of Thomas (65-66). Difference between these is that Thomas has the shortest version and the vineyard is not given to “others” as in Matthew but “to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” I’ll repeat that as well, the vineyard is give to “people that produce fruits of the kingdom.”
The parable is set up like a typical share-cropper arrangement. The tenant or renter supplied all the labor in running that vineyard for the year, & then at harvest time the tenant or renter got two-thirds of the harvest, & the owner received one-third! That's the kind of deal that this parable is all about, a simple rental agreement between the tenants & the owner of the vineyard, on a share basis! But trouble began to develop when this group of tenants decided to take more than their fair share! They wanted all of the harvest for themselves, & were even willing to kill for it!
The idea that God has taken the blessing away from the Jews and put it on the Christians has lead to anti-Semitism. This is Christian triumphalism at its worst. Christian triumphalism is like bad sportsmanship. It means we’re rubbing the fact that we won the game, namely God loves US and NOT the Jews. The Jews on the other hand didn’t realize they were playing a game in the first place and have no idea what we’re talking about. How can this claim that WE WIN! GOD LOVES US MORE! NA-NA-NA-Boo-Boo, be advanced by the same people who will, in the same breath, say that God does not change? This is a pretty big change here!
Why do I not like this parable? Actually, I do like it, it does have some positive things in it, I just don’t like how some people interpret it. The idea of the vineyard was a traditional metaphor for Israel as we heard in Isaiah. God has high hopes for Israel, his vineyard, and then it utterly disappointed at Israel’s sins and the future destruction of the vineyard. Wicked Tenants is best read as a criticism about US! NOT a criticism of THE JEWS. It should be read in the light of God’s unfathomable grace and ongoing faithfulness and mercy to all people.
That’s what this parable does; it sets up an “US vs. THEM” mentality. What we need to realize is that there is no THEM! There is only US! We are the wicked tenants. We become that when we think we own something that isn’t ours… namely God’s truth as revealed through Jesus Christ. I’ll testify that I don’t have the market cornered on Jesus. Neither does the UCC, the MCC church down the street, the Methodist church, LCBC, no one. The moment we think we have THE TRUTH we become the wicked tenants. God is still speaking. We are in the process of figuring out the truth, we are living in it. We are looking for God’s revealed word and helping others to do the same.
When Christians announced the way of Jesus as “Good news” they announced it to everyone, Jew and Gentile. However, announcing this caused them to be kicked out of the Jewish community and uninvited to the synagogue. How traumatic that must have been. That is where this parable comes from. So in this parable we see the early Church’s struggle with God’s will. Where you and I can get into trouble is when we think that this excludes any particular person or group from God’s love.
The message of Jesus invites everyone into communion. The sinners and the prostitutes, even the scribes and priests! Here is the most important thing to remember, I can be in communion and still have questions and doubts and room for improvement. No one has it all figured out.
What we need to do is not become the wicked tenants who resist God’s urging. We can learn so much from our Jewish brothers and sisters and we are called to love them! God can speak through rabbis just as easily as through seminary interns and catholic priests and ordained UCC ministers and laypeople—you! So when we think that we have it down, when we think that OUR opinions are the right ones (and we all do, because if we didn’t we’d get new ones) God sends prophets to remind us that we don’t have it all figured out. God sends people to remind us that we must continue to turn the gem of scripture and see how the light refracts.
Jesus talks about this “in and out” in a lot of his teachings. He keeps insisting that the people who assume they are in may not be in and the ones who everyone thinks are out for whatever reason may in fact be in. So let’s not assume that we’re IN and THEY! (whoever THEY are) are out. There’s room in heaven enough for us all if we produce the fruits of the kingdom.
The worst thing we could possibly do is use this parable to hurt our Jewish brothers and sisters. When we do this, we become the wicked tenants. We Christians have been tending our corner of the vineyard for two millennia and our record is spotty at best; shameful and horrible at worst.
Today is world communion Sunday meaning that Christian churches all over the world are celebrating communion. What does communion mean? It’s more than just breaking bread, its breaking bread in remembrance of Jesus and a symbol to all Christians that we are connected through our faith. We are connected to each other and we are called to love our neighbor. If our neighbor is Jewish, we are called to be in communion with them. If our neighbor is Muslim, the same applies. If our neighbor is Black, Asian, homosexual, voting for Obama, McCain or other. This is what it means to be in communion with one another. We are Christians, communion is what we are called to do!
So in the end I say to you, Coexist! Love your neighbors as yourself. The rest is commentary. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline. Harper Torchbooks 1970.
Origen was the first to talk about the literal and spiritual meanings in his On First Principles around 240 CE.
Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, Repainting the Christian Faith. Zondervan Publishing 2005.
Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting, How the New Testaments’ Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book. HarperCollins, 2005
The "rest is commentary" quote comes from Rabbi Hillel, found in the book Alfred J Kolatch The Second Jewish Book of Why. Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.; Middle Village, New York, 1985