The Wicked Tenants

I’m going to start my sermon today by reading to you from the Old Testament and then I will read you the gospel reading again.

This is from Isaiah 5

“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Now let’s read today’s gospel reading.

MATTHEW 21:33-42

The Lord said this parable, “There was a land lord who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.

When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit;

and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.

Afterward 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 have his inheritance.’

And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.

When therefore 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 let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?'”

The story of the vineyard and the wicked tenants is a story about the people of Israel and their relationship with God. Israel is a vine. The vine does not yield good fruit. And the consequence is the exile. About 500 years before Jesus was born All of the educated people in Jerusalem Were forced to move to Babylon. All the priests and leaders were taken captive. The temple was destroyed.

The prophesy we read was predicting that this would happen. The vineyard is the promised land of Israel. The hedge represents the city walls or boundaries of the land. The winepress is the altar where the blood of the animals flowed like wine being pressed out of grapes. The tower was the temple. The fruit represents the sacrifices that were brought to the temple.

There is one special difference between the story in Isaiah and Jesus’ story. In Isaiah, Israel is the vine. And the vine fails to give good fruit. Isaiah explains what that means. The rich people in Israel exploited the poor. There was bribery and corruption and immorality. Good deeds would be good fruit. Bad deeds were bad fruit, especially the bad deeds of oppression by people who were pretending to be religious.

In Jesus’ story the problem is that the tenants don’t give the landlord his portion of the harvest. Jesus changed the story a bit. Jesus has introduced a middleman between the vine and the landlord. This modification of the story is made in order to accuse the priests and the leaders of the people. Jesus adds some nuance to the problem. Jesus does not focus on the fruit being bad fruit. Jesus focuses on how the tenants refuse to give any fruit to the master.

In the story of Isaiah is that the vineyard doesn’t get any rain and foreigners invade it and tear it down. Isaiah was writing about how God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed in 497 BC. Israel went into exile.

Five hundred years later, in Jesus’ day, the Jews still saw themselves in a kind of exile. Kind of. They lived in Jerusalem. They had a temple. But they did not have their freedom. The Romans were ruling over them. And everyone assumed that God would give them back their old kingdom when they started to produce good fruit again. They believed that when the people pleased God, then God would give them back their kingdom.

But Jesus redefines the problem. Jesus says that the tenants refuse to give the fruit. In other words, the priests are dishonest. The teachers of the people were dishonest.

If I had been one of the Pharisees I would have been offended by what Jesus was saying. How can you hold me responsible, I would have thought. “How can you hold me responsible for the sins of the people? The original story said that the people did not bear fruit. And here I am, a Pharisee, trying really hard to follow all the laws. How am I a tenant who refuses to give fruit to God? It’s not my fault.” That would be my reply.

Jesus says to these leaders and teachers of the people, “You don’t admit that you need help. You want to be seen as leaders and as important people. So you sit at the front in the Synagogue and call yourself a Rabbi but you don’t actually have any wisdom to give them. You don’t actually know how to lead the people in righteousness. And you don’t know how to bring an end to the exile. It’s not working.”

Jesus says to these leaders, “You have created a false religion of extra rules minute details, but no compassion. You don’t care about the people you are supposed to serve. You want the respect that comes with being the tenants of the vineyard. But you don’t actually care about the people you are leading. You make their lives miserable in the name of your religion.”

And then Jesus says to them, “I come to you healing the blind and raising the dead and you can’t admit that I know something you do not. Because of me the adulteress repents of her sins. You never convinced her to stop sinning. You don’t care about her. You are her best customers! And yet you tell me that I am from Satan. You tell me that I am cursed by God.”

“Why can’t you just admit you have no idea how to please God? Why can’t you admit that you are a false leader, a false teacher? Why will you not admit that you are a failed tenant of this vineyard?

So Jesus tells this story about the vineyard. The tenants of the vineyard in Jesus’ story never thought to ask for forgiveness. The tenants did not understand that their landlord was kind. And the leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ time did not know that they could simply ask Jesus for help. They could simply come to Jesus and say, “You have something we don’t have. You have something we don’t even know about. Teach us. Help us.”

There is more evidence of the landlord’s kindness which the tenants did not see. The landlord did not evict the tenants after the first time that they beat his servant. The landlord had every right to kick them out after that first offense. They not stop to ask themselves why the landlord refused to retaliate? Maybe they saw the landlord’s love and patience as weakness.

Then the landlord sent his Son. He gave the tenants the opportunity again to admit that they were wrong. He gave them the chance to stop avoiding the truth.

The truth was that they had nothing to give him. Jesus doesn’t say this, but think of the original story. The fruit from the vine was bad fruit. And they knew it. St. John Chrysostom writes about this story and he says that the tenants of the vineyard were lazy and had not done the work. So they had nothing to give the landlord. And the landlord knows this but he wants the tenants to admit it.

The Father exercises restraint even though he is not obligated to exercise restraint. The Father, or the landlord who is God the Father in this story, is showing the tenants how to exercise restraint. He could have kicked them out after the first attack on his servant. But the Father wants them to have a change of heart.

The tenants do not know how to produce good fruit. They have nothing to give to the father. But the Son who comes to them does know how to produce good fruit. He can show them how. Jesus came to his people performing miracles and turning sinners from their sins. He came to show the leaders how to lead by dying on the cross. He showed them how to lead by his condescension. By becoming a servant.

Jesus came to show them that the way out of the exile is to love and serve the poor. They killed him because they wanted power and privilege and because they didn’t care about correctly interpreting the law. They killed him because they wanted his authority without learning anything about his love and humility. That is what Jesus means when he says that the tenants killed the son of the landlord in order to steal his inheritance.

What about us? In Galatians 5, St. Paul tells us about fruit that we should offer to God. What fruit is that?

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Think of a person in your life  who is driving you absolutely crazy. It could be someone at work, or at home or somewhere else. Someone who you can’t stand.

St. Paul says that you are invited to produce the fruit of the spirit. You are invited to love that person. You are invited to let the Spirit produce joy in your heart for that person so that you do not become dismayed or enraged. The Holy Spirit gives you joy because you know that God has given us everything we need. The Spirit wants to give you peace and gentleness.

You are in the same position that the tenants of the vineyard were in. You do not have any fruit to give to the servant of God. Now the servant is coming to ask for the Father’s share of the fruit. And you have to decide whether to admit that you don’t have it or whether you will lash out at the servant of God.

In this interpretation, the servant is the person who drives you crazy. Will you react to that person with anger and malice? Will you condemn that person? Will you judge them and talk about them with other people? Will you give them the cold shoulder and exclude them?

When we are faced with difficult people, Jesus is asking us to see that difficult person as the servant of God. And we are asked to admit our own poverty and our own inadequacy.

We say, “Jesus, I have not worked your vineyard. I have not cultivated patience in my life. I have not cultivated empathy and compassion for others. I have not cultivated self-control. I do not have these things to give to your servant. I only have the thorns of sin and passions to give to your servant when he comes to me. Help me Jesus!

Jesus answers us that he is the one who planted the vineyard, and his blood is the wine in the winepress. We only need to offer him our repentance and our humility he will teach us how to cultivate the other fruits of the spirit. The Son himself comes to us in the vineyard, and we are made free simply by confessing to him, “I do not have any grapes to give you.”

When we admit that, the Son himself will show us how to work the land and how to harvest the grapes. The fruits of the spirit are not things that God demands from us. They are virtues that God wants to cultivate within us. If we will only let him.

We let him cultivate the fruit when we say to God, “okay you have put this person in my life who is causing me distress. What do you want me to learn? In what way do you want me to humble myself? Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.”