October 2, 2011

Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. I wonder if you have ever felt like that when you heard one of Jesus’ stories of parables. I wonder if you have ever read something in the scriptures and thought, “That was written for me!” Or if you have ever listened to a sermon, and wondered if the preacher was addressing you specifically.

Well, when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, and when they realized that he was speaking about them, they weren’t very pleased. Though the crowds thought that Jesus was something special, the religious leaders had concluded that Jesus was a problem – telling stories that cast them in a negative role – and they wanted to arrest them.

You see, when the religious leaders of Jesus’ time heard today’s parable, they must have quickly figured out that it was an allegory. It wasn’t a story about an actual historical landowner who leased out his land to some bad tenants and had to deal with the consequences. It was an allegory – a made-up story in which the characters and plot lines represent actual people and things that are happening in the world.

Listen to the parable again, and consider… where might the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have seen themselves in Jesus’ parable?

There was a landowner who planted vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. 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.”

It goes almost without saying that the landowner in the parable is God. God is the one who is the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, who has leant us this land – this earth – on which to live and to make our home. So who are the tenants in the parable? Who are the bad tenants who do not share the harvest, and who beat and kill the servants and then the son of the landowner?

The chief priests and the Pharisees seem to think that Jesus is talking about them – that they are the bad tenants – the wretches that Jesus’ listeners concluded should get chucked out and put to a miserable death so that the land could be leased to other tenants would will give him the produce at the harvest time.

To a group of people in positions of power, Jesus’ parable may have sounded like a subversive attempt to undermine their authority. Without confronting the religious leaders directly, Jesus is making a bold statement about these leaders and their lack of goodness and faithfulness to God. God has been sending prophet after prophet after prophet for years, and the religious establishment of Israel has been ignoring (at best) and more often persecuting these servants of God.

But there were others there that day as well. There was likely a good-sized crowd gathered to hear the well-known teacher and story-teller. Some of them were Jesus’ disciples who had been travelling with him for quite some time. Others were there hoping that this man would do some healing miracles today. They had heard that he did that kind of thing sometimes. Some of the people were probably poor and hungry, and looking for some help. And some were the kind of people that others moved away from in the crowd – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners.

Everything seemed to be turned upside down with this Jesus prophet. He was sticking it to the Pharisees and priests, and he was just welcoming the outcasts and sinners. And I wonder if they too saw themselves in the parable when Jesus told it.

Of course, they would have been used to seeing themselves as the bad tenants. After all, they had ignored God’s commandments and God’s call, and they were used to religious people telling them off, or tut-tutting at them, or generally excluding them from polite society. They wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone suggest that they had messed up and that God was going to punish them for it. That was probably something that they heard on a regular basis.

I wonder though, if some of the people in the crowd that day, might have had the gift of imagining themselves as the “other tenants.” Could they picture themselves as the tenants who hadn’t messed up yet, as the ones who still had the potential to be good tenants, enjoying the good land and the vineyard, and being proud to hand over the produce at the harvest time.

Maybe the disciples thought they could be “other tenants” – receiving the prophets and messengers from God with grace and hospitality, recognizing God’s very own son, and welcoming him with joy. People like Peter and Andrew, James and John hoped that they could live up to that calling, but it proved to be very difficult just a short time later, and they too ending up rejecting God’s son – denying him and running for their lives while he was killed.

I was thinking about our other scripture text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians, and I tried to imagine Paul reading or hearing this parable that Jesus had once told. After all, Paul was a Pharisee once, and he was a persecutor of the very earliest Christians. As he reflected on his life, I don’t think he would have had any trouble imagining himself as one of the bad tenants. Remember that voice that he heard on the road to Damascas? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” And the reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

But in his conversion, Saul (who became Paul) somehow discovered that having been a bad tenant would not exclude him from seeing himself in a new role in the parable. He could move from having been a bad tenant who had messed up, and done wrong, and persecuted the servants of God, and he could become an “other tenant” just starting out with the potential to be good and faithful to God. He could move from a bad tenant to a new tenant because he believed in the mercy and grace of God.

In today’s letter, we heard Paul re-iterate the emphasis on God’s grace that is found throughout Paul’s writings. “[I do not have] a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

I imagine that Paul definitely could have seen himself as one of those new tenants, embarking on a new relationship with the landowner who is God, and working so hard to preach the Gospel far and wide and to produce a good harvest for God. But as I read this morning’s text from Philippians, I wondered whether Paul might have seen himself in another role in Jesus’ parable.

The usual assumption in interpreting this parable is that the slaves of the landowner are the prophets that God sent to the people of Israel, and the son of the landowner is Jesus, the son of God, who is rejected and killed by the bad tenants. But if we, as followers of Jesus, are supposed to become members of the body of Christ… if we are supposed to act as his hands and his feet and his voice in the world, following his ways, engaging in his mission, and doing his work in the world… then perhaps we might see ourselves in a different role.

I have a feeling that the apostle Paul wouldn’t have seen himself as a tenant at all. He would have placed himself in the role of a slave of the landowner, or even as one of the landowner’s very own children.

Paul wrote: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul believed that his faith called him to much more than simply being a good tenant, simply receiving God and God’s servants and trying to be good and faithful. Paul believed that his faith called him to the risk-taking, self-giving way of Jesus – bringing the message of judgment and grace to God’s people, and enduring the rejection and suffering that so often comes along with that mission.

This morning I invite you to reflect on your own relationship with God. And I invite you to think about where you see yourself in Jesus’ parable today. Where you see yourself today may not be where you were yesterday, and you may be in a different place tomorrow. There is no right or wrong answer to the question.

As we gather around the Communion table this morning, we will remember Jesus’ death – the beloved son of the landowner who was rejected and killed. We will remember his sacrifice – his self-giving love – for us, whether we are bad tenants in need of his amazing grace, or whether we are new tenants who are striving with God’s help to live more faithful and righteous lives.

But as we receive the gift of this holy meal, we must also recognize ourselves as servants of the landowner and as daughters and sons who are called to be ambassadors for God – often walking into dangerous and volatile situations and accepting the risks that come with that.

Even as we receive the gift of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we are simultaneously called to become what we receive – to become Christ’s body in the world – to become the ones who are ready and willing to go where God sends us, and to give ourselves for others and for God’s loving purposes in the world. Amen.