October 5, 2014

A Problem with Corrupt Tenants

Passage: Matt. 21:33
Service Type:

Horror stories involving abusive tenants abound. There are many landlords who have been taken in by renters who initially seemed like upright citizens, but who become the landlord’s worst nightmare once they move in.
Here are a couple of examples.

One renter recently drove his four-wheeler into the carpeted living room of his rented home so that he could repair it in a warmer setting. When that renter finally moved out; he left behind garbage and dirty diapers all over the house; plus children’s drawings with permanent marker on many of the walls.

Another landlord says he rented to a seemingly pleasant couple who paid the first and last months’ rent up front, but then after they moved in, they never paid another dime. When the couple were finally evicted, they left the house in a terrible mess: - with a shattered front door; paraffin poured down all the drains; beer bottles scattered everywhere; and ever window in the home broken.

But as ominous as these landlord problems may be, they pale in comparison with the trouble experienced by the landlord in Jesus’ parable. As we heard in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus told a story about a landlord who did everything he could to make life pleasant and happy for his tenants, only to be rewarded by an appalling abuse from those very tenants.

The landowner had planted the grape vines, and spent a great deal of his own money turning his property into a first-rate vineyard. He surrounded it with a fence; dug a wine press; and built a watchtower so guards could ensure that no thieves broke in to ravage the vineyard. Then finally, when all the work was completed, the Landlord leased the vineyard to, what he hoped would be, good tenants.

Later, when the vineyard had produced an excellent crop, the landowner sent three of his servants to collect the rent. But instead of receiving them with respect, the tenants seize them; beat one; kill another; and stone the third. Thinking that the tenants would surely respect a member of his family, the landowner finally sent his own son. But the wicked tenants seized the son and killed him.

That’s the gist of Jesus’ parable. But what does it is mean?

Virtually everyone who heard Jesus tell this parable understood that the Land Owner was God. After all, Jewish children were taught from their earliest childhood that it’s God who has so wonderfully provided for all our needs; giving us food to eat, water to quench our thirst; and materials to build shelters to protect us from the elements. So the people who heard Jesus tell this parable had no difficulty understanding that Jesus was talking about God.

No doubt, they’d also be reminded of the story of the Garden of Eden. They’d remember that at the beginning of human history, Adam and Eve had lived in a wonderful paradise; and that while they lived there, they had the opportunity to commune with God on a daily basis. They knew also that God had put Adam and Eve in charge of that garden and entrusted them to look after it. They’d also remember that Adam and Eve weren’t satisfied with what they had; they wanted more. And so when the tempter told them that if they ate the forbidden fruit their eyes would be opened and they would ‘be like God’, knowing both good and evil;” (Gen. 3:4) they quickly exercised their freedom by defying God and eating the prohibited fruit.

But while many who heard Jesus’ parable on that day so long ago, would know all of this, I doubt that any of them realized that Jesus was actually predicting His own death; but that’s exactly what He was doing.

Most people today aren’t as well informed about the Bible as were the people of Jesus’ day, so let’s see what we can learn from this parable. And let’s begin by asking: who are the tenants in this story.

My guess is, that when the Pharisees and Scribes heard this parable, they knew Jesus meant them when He talked about evil tenants. After all, they were the ones whom God had put in charge of the labourers in His vineyard. They were the leaders of God’s chosen people; and they fervently believed that God had placed them in positions of leadership and responsibility. And so, they’d see themselves as principle players in His parable. Jesus was also accusing them of failing to acknowledge both God’s prophets. And they certainly refused to see Him as God’s Son.

And so a seemingly innocent story infuriated the religious leaders; and became the last straw for them; the final breaking point. Jesus was attacking them, and they responded with fury and indignation; and becoming more determined than ever to do away with this trouble-maker.

But let’s pause here for a moment and consider the timing of this parable; because the timing is very significance. Jesus told this parable in the middle of Holy Week, (the most important occasion in the Jewish calendar), and He was standing in the Temple as He spoke. In other words, He was in His enemies’ territory. Furthermore, everything Jesus had done that week played right into the hands of His enemies.

But this was no coincidence; Jesus knew full well what He was doing. He was deliberately forcing the hand of His adversaries. Here’s what He had done:

  • First He entered the holy city riding on a donkey; an act which immediately linked Him to the ancient prophecies about the coming of a Messiah.
  • When the people responded by shouting Hosanna in the Highest, and placing palm branches on the ground in from of Him, Jesus did nothing to stop them.
  • The next day, He deliberately caused havoc in the Temple, by over turning the tables of the money changes and driving them out; all the while declaring that they had turned God’s temple into a den of thieves.
  • After that He dared to heal the lame and the blind, right in the temple grounds; acts which were bound to attract attention.

On the following day, Jesus began teaching in the temple; an act which the chief priests and elders immediately challenged, asking Him by what authority He did this. They were trying to make a fool of Him in front of the people, but (just as He had done so often before) Jesus outsmarted His critics, by asking them: by what authority did John the Baptist’s speak. He knew they daren’t answer this question for fear the people would turn against them.

So let’s return to the parable. While it was clear that the religious leaders were a target of Jesus’ story, what may be less obvious is that the common people were also implicated. I doubt that many of them realized it at the time, but a few days later, they too would be guilty of rejecting the Son of God and causing His death.

You’ll remember the occasion. It was Pilot’s tradition to release one prisoner during Holy Week. Not seeing any reason why he should punish Jesus, he offered to release Him. But the crowd shouted for the release of Barabbas, a convicted criminal. And so in the end, it was Jesus who was led off to be crucified.

Although we’re reading this parable some 2000 years later, we need to be aware that we too stand condemned along with the people of Jerusalem; for we are condemned every time we turn our backs on Christ, or disobey God. And for that reason, this parable is speaking to us.

So, what’s the essential message of this parable?

No one likes to stand before a judge; especially when it’s your behaviour that is being examined. Our generation is particularly adverse to the idea of a judgment at the end of our lives. Yet here is a parable in which Jesus is clearly referring to a final judgement.

Judgment is something which modern liberal theology today, tends to gloss over. In stead of talking about the final judgement, most people prefer to talk about the love of God; a love which they say will wipe away every sin, and provide for us a free ticket into eternity. But unfortunately, if you focus only upon God’s love, you’re apt to think you can get away with just about any kind of behaviour, because at the end, all will be forgiven.

Frequently when I’m driving, I listen to a station on satellite radio that carries advertisements. There’s one particular advertisement, which I hear often, that disturbs me. It’s an ad for a company that helps people who have large credit card debt. Repeatedly during the commercial, the announcer says that if you have a large credit card debt, it’s not your fault; it is the fault of the banks. What’s missing from the commercial is any sense of personal responsibility. Friends, no one forces us to buy things we can’t afford. Yet, here’s a company that thinks consumers bear no responsibility for their debt.

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of trouble with that message. It may well be true that banks make credit too easy. They sometimes issue cards to people who really shouldn’t have a card because of their poor financial history, but the fact remains, its the consumer’s responsibility to exercise restraint, and not buy things he can’t afford.

A parent who always forgives her child no matter what he or she does, without any thought to applying consequences for misbehaving, isn’t serving the best interests of that child. It says to the child it doesn’t matter what you do; because there are no penalties for your bad behaviour. Good parenting sets rules for good behaviour and consequences when rules are broken. Enforcing those rules doesn’t mean the parent stops loving her child, when he breaks the rules, or that she refuses to forgive. There is final forgiveness for those who confess their sins, but there are also consequences when rules are broken.

That is how it is with God. We worship a loving God; One who cares for us even more than a good parent. God’s love is so deep that He allowed His own Son to pay the price for our sins. But that doesn’t mean that we can get away with doing whatever we want, whether it is pleasing to God or not. There are penalties when we sin against God. In Jesus’ parable of the evil Tenants, the penalty for their rebellion was rejection from the vineyard. It’s the same consequence suffered by Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus’ parable tells us that when the tenants are unfaithful, God will turn over the management of His vineyard to other tenants who will be faithfully. For those listening to Jesus in the temple, this was a clear warning that they could no longer rely on their status as God’s Chosen people for their salvation, because they were about to lose their privileges; and it would be gentiles who would enjoy the benefits of the vineyard; a forecast of the Gospel of Christ being taken to the Gentile world which happened after Jesus’ resurrection.

When Jesus asked the Pharisees what they thought the Landowner in the parable would do to those who refused to recognize his leadership, and who killed his son, they said: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end. (Matt. 21;41) That’s what they would have done, if they were the landowner. But that’s not God’s ultimate way of dealing with His disobedient flock.

God, our landowner, did exactly the opposite. He used the death of His Son as an atoning sacrifice so that He might forgive the rebels and ultimately return them to the promised land. For as Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “He who did not spare His own son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things.” (Romans 8:32) But there’s one ketch; for the love of God to be effective in forgiving us, we must first accept the gift of God’s love, made known to us through Jesus Christ.

Elizabeth Barrett, who in 1846 married Robert Browning, was a semi-invalid most of her life. As a child she lived with a tyrannical father. When she met Robert and fell in love with him, her father refused to accept the situation and violently disapproved of her relationship with him. As a result, Elizabeth and Robert were married secretly; and following their marriage moved to Italy, where they spent most of the rest of her life. Her parents’ response to the wedding, was to disown their daughter, and refused to have anything more to do with her. But Elizabeth never gave up on her parents, and wrote to them almost weekly. However they never replied.

Ten years later, she received a large box in the mail. Inside, she found all of her letters; none of which had been opened. Today, those letters are considered to be among the most beautiful in classical English literature. Had her parents been willing to set aside their anger, and open a few of those letters, their relationship with their daughter might have been restored.

That’s how it is with our relationship with God. God loves us even when we dishonour Him by our disobedience. But if we get our backs up against God, just as the evil tenants did against the Landowner, and refuse to accept His love and forgiveness; nothing in all the world will force us to accept it. We will simply exclude ourselves.

The wonder of God’s love is that, although God doesn’t removed all the consequences of our actions, He has paved the way for us to receive ultimate forgiveness for our misdeeds. But, God will never force His forgiveness on us; it is up to each one of us to accept that forgiveness by responding to Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.