Matthew 21:33-46

“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.

This is not a pretty parable.

It is ominous, violent, and threatening. And it was all too familiar to Jesus’ audience. Absentee landlords were not uncommon. Someone buying a field, improving it, leasing it to tenants, and then departing to live in another region was part and parcel of the ancient world where a very few people often held much of the land and agricultural wealth.

Nor would it have been terribly uncommon to imagine tenants resisting the landlord’s assertion of authority and demand for a return on investment. We don’t know how long the landlord lived away. It could have been years. The tenants may have assumed by this time that the landlord had died, or forgotten about them, and may have similarly assumed the land was now theirs by right of possession and labor.

None of this is uncommon. What is uncommon is the repeated entreaties of the landlord. Once, sure. But several times? More likely, a landlord wealthy enough to buy and improve land while living abroad and who employed multiple servants… well, this kind of landlord likely would have sent not just servants but soldiers to collect his due.

There are two things that don’t make a lot of sense about this parable. The first is the tenants’ assumption that if they kill the heir they will now be inheritors, an assumption that the crowds listening to Jesus’ parable intuitively contradict. It is, in short, a little crazy.

The second is the landlord sending his son and heir, alone and unaccompanied, to plead for a sensible response from these tenants after all this violence. That’s even crazier. It is, quite frankly, the act of a landlord so desperate to restore relationship with these wayward and wicked tenants that he is willing to try anything, do anything to repair the breach between them. Or maybe it’s the act of a desperate parent who will try anything, do anything to draw back a wayward child into a loving embrace. Or the act of a desperate God who will try anything, do anything to win back a wayward people.

It’s not just crazy; it’s crazy love. The kind of love that brooks no reason, that will listen to no counter argument, and that will never, ever give up, risking even violence, rejection, and death in order to testify to God’s commitment to these tenants…and to us.

Matthew tells this parable in order to indict those who rejected Jesus and to assure his community that justice, in time, will be served. But I don’t think this parable is only about Jesus’ opponents. I think that ultimately this parable tells the truth both about how often we get caught up in our own devices and demands to the point of absolutely rejecting God’s just claim on our allegiance and just how far God will go to win us back.

Like I said, this isn’t a pretty parable.

Prayer: Dear God, open our eyes to see your desperate, even crazy love for each of us and open our hearts to be won over by that love that we may share it in word and deed with everyone we meet. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Post image: “The Wicked Husbandmen” from the Bowyer Bible, 19th century.