Thursday, September 28, 2017

What Will He Do to Those Tenants?

The final paragraph of Matthew 21:33-46, the gospel lesson appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, announces that the bad news continues for the enemies of Jesus:  "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them." (vs. 45)  But the question remains:  "What will the owner of the vineyard do to these wicked tenants?"  That is the question we too must ponder.

(The following questions follow a method I have developed to bring out some fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  If you wish to know more about Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The primary function of the text is to lift up the wickedness of the tenant farmers.  This is certainly the Word functioning as Law, calling into judgement those who would destroy the ones sent to collect the fruits of the vineyard rightly the property of the landowner.  Another function of the text, however, is to lift up the absurd patience of the landowner.  Who is this landowner who continues to send messengers to this murderous bunch, even naively sending the heir?  Could this be the word of the Gospel, hidden, that God's patience is beyond our understanding?

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  One could argue that the hidden word of Gospel mentioned above is overshadowed by the later verses in which Jesus declares, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." (vs. 43)  This verse indicates that God's patience does have a limit.  I would lift up the fact that the answer to Jesus' question about the fate of the wicked tenants comes not from Jesus' mouth, but from those of his hearers.  They say, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death..."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices, it seems.  We can identify either with the chief priests and Pharisees, or with those who answered Jesus' question, if we assume they are not the same persons.  According to the last verse, the crowds were present as well, so perhaps it was them who answered Jesus' question.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text is not a call to obedience, but a call to repentance.  As St. Paul says, "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4b)  The picture we have here of an endlessly patient landowner is a good image for us of God's infinite patience with God's people.  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to the Gospel, is not present here.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text as a whole does not suggest a couplet, but if we think of what God calls us to here, our couplet is:  rebellious/repentant.

6.  Exegetical work:  Joachim Jeremias, in his classic analysis of the parables of Jesus writes this:  "The whole parable is evidently pure allegory.  Nevertheless this impression undergoes radical modification when the different versions are compared." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 70) Jeremias then proceeds to show how the three synoptic versions of this parable, as well as the version in the Gospel of Thomas, bring us to different conclusions about the allegorical nature of this parable.  David Buttrick also warns us about concluding too quickly that "the other tenants" to whom the vineyard is leased are the Gentile church to come.  Buttrick writes: "Certainly preachers will not want to historicize the parable - Israel has been the wicked vinedressers and now the vineyard is turned over to us responsible Christian tenants.... Besides, any preacher who supposes that 'Christian nations,' by contrast, welcome prophets and are faithful to God's will have failed to notice the Holocaust or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr." (Speaking Parables, p. 81)  What Buttick further lifts up is the fact that the most interesting character in this parable is the owner of the vineyard.  Is it not true that the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of God's unending patience with God's people, and our own journey with God is filled with our experience of God's patience?  Do we not come to God again and again in confession, and each time God forgives us and "cleanses us from all unrighteousness?"  It seems to me that the correct answer to Jesus' question following this parable is not "He will put those wretches to a miserable death," rather, "In light of what we know about this landowner, he will continue to have mercy on them."  This parable is called "The Wicked Tenants."  I would rename it, "The Merciful Landowner."

7.  Consider the insights  of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?   Fred Craddock always insisted that our listeners must experience the text.  What would it be like if our listeners experienced themselves answering Jesus' question, and then heard from God a different answer to the question - one of grace?

Blessings on your proclamation!

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