Who Are the Wicked Tenants?: Lectionary Reflections on Matthew 21:33-39

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Lectionary Reflections
Matthew 21:33-39 (Mark 12:1-8; Luke 20:9-15a)
October 2, 2011

How to End a Parable?
I teach preaching at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. A couple of days ago in my "Introduction to Preaching" class, our topic was "Do's and Dont's for ending your sermon." There are some definite "Do's" options for an effective ending. Do end with a story that embodies the message. Or with an eloquent, brief statement of your theme. Or, with a question.

There are some definite "don'ts." Don't preach the interstate highway ending where you pass several perfectly good exits but keep on going. Don't preach the Debbie Downer ending in which you revisit the problem after you have offered the good news of God's Grace to face our problems. Don't ever get into the pulpit without knowing exactly how you are going to end your sermon. In his book Preaching Better, Roman Catholic teacher of preaching Ken Unterer says that's like going into a haunted house without a flashlight. And, he says, "don't make a habit of following a moving story with an explanation. Many times, it is more effective to just sit down and let listeners apply it to themselves."

I can't presume to speak for Jesus' theory of how to end a parable. But in reading the gospels we often have the sneaking suspicion that many parables should bear the label in small print "Allegorical ending provided by Mark, Luke, or Matthew." I wonder if Jesus didn't often end his parables with questions, leaving listeners to supply the ending from their own experience.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
The parable of the wicked tenants as it stands in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is an allegory that emphasizes the murder of God's Son by Israel's leaders and the transfer of Israel's privileges to the church. This passage needs to be treated with great care by Christians. It began as a prophetic critique by a Jew to fellow Jews, designed not to damn Israel but to provoke repentance. In the course of Christian history, this passage and others like it became fuel for fires of anti-Semitism. Jews were reviled with the hated nickname "Christ killers," and popes and bishops taught that Jews were less than fully human. Christian teachings against Jews fueled the flames of the "final solution" of the Nazi gas chambers.

A version of this parable appears in the Gospel of Thomas. There it refers simply to a "son," rather than a "beloved Son," which, in Mark and Luke, is a clear reference to Jesus. It omits the reference to the closing actions of the vineyard owner, destroying the tenants and giving the vineyard "to others." Instead the parable ends with the actions of the tenants in killing the owner's son and the question "What will the vineyard owner do?" (12:9a).

We know what we would do. We'd go and get revenge on these tenants for destroying the son. But in this earlier, shorter version of the parable, we no longer see it as it is presented in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as an allegorical reprimand of Israel for rejecting Jesus. Its abrupt ending leaves it up to the listeners as to what they think will be the consequences of the tenants' actions. The shorter version encourages listeners (and readers) to apply the parable to themselves. My worry about the allegorical version is that we can use it to indict others.

The Vineyard Owner's Strange Forbearance
Jesus' parables are short narratives that combine realistic details from first-century Palestinian village life with details that are strange and not the way things happen in daily life. They are Jesus' answers to the question: "What is the kingdom of God like?" In this parable, it is realistic that a vineyard owner would send a servant to tenants to collect his share of the produce of the vineyard. It is even realistic that the tenants would resent the vineyard owner who had perhaps bought up their family plots and turned them into a vineyard, a common practice at the time. It would have made more profit for him and it would also have the advantage of increasing his power over those who worked the land. It made them dependent tenants rather than independent landowners of small family plots. What seems strange, however, is that the tenants would repeatedly mistreat and even kill his emissaries without any reprisal by the vineyard owner. In interpreting parables, the glimpse into the kingdom of God often comes to us through the strange details, the details that are not the way things are in life around us then or now.