Feb 1 2013 - Matthew 21:23-46 – The tenants of the vineyard
Jesus had chased the traders out of the Temple, much to the fury of the Jewish leaders who now confronted him, questioning his authority to do these things. Jesus responds with a question of his own; he asks them whether the ministry of John the Baptiser was from God or of human contrivance? The Jewish leaders refuse to answer. They cannot admit that John’s ministry was from God otherwise they will be faced with the question of why they did not believe him – particularly in his testimony about Jesus. Their hypocrisy is illustrated in the story Jesus then tells them about two sons.
Jesus then tells them a parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard and let it out to tenant farmers. At harvest time the owner sent his servants, expecting to be given his share of the crop. But the tenants beat the servants and even killed some. More servants were sent, but they were treated in the same way. Finally, the owner of the vineyard sent his own son to receive the fruit of the vineyard that was his due. But when they saw the son coming, the tenants plotted to kill him in the hope that the vineyard would then be theirs to do with as they liked. So they killed him. Jesus then asked the Jewish leaders, "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" (Matthew 21:40). The Jewish leaders have become so caught up in the drama of the story that they respond, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time." Only as Jesus continues to speak to them do they realise that he had been speaking about them.
The saddest part of this whole incident is the final reaction of the Jewish leaders. They have entered into the drama of the parable. They recognise the rights of the owner of the vineyard and the astonishing wickedness of the tenants who will kill the son who comes in the owner's name seeking the fruit that is his due. Yet when they realise that Jesus has told this parable about them, they looked for a way to seize him. They do not abandon their role in the drama; they are intent on playing it out to the bitter end.
Saddest of all is their implied verdict upon themselves, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
Matthew's readers would have seen this as a picture of the church, the community of the New Covenant created through the shed blood of Jesus; a people being gathered from every nation under heaven – Jew and Gentile. This new people are being put together by God with Jesus, the stone that the builders rejected, as the cornerstone. They are a people created to give God the worship and honour that is his due.
But this is not the end of the story. This drama that finds its definitive fulfilment in Christ continues to be played out down the years. Again and again, those who call themselves the people of God fail to live up to their calling. But God's purpose is never defeated. He is ever and anew creating a people who will worship him in spirit and in truth.
Where are we in this drama?
Father God, keep me from an outward profession of faith which fails to be accompanied by heartfelt obedience and worship. Lord Jesus, give me an ear to hear what you are saying to the churches and a ready heart to respond to every word that comes from your mouth. Animate me by your Spirit and keep me from fossilised and critical religion.