Matthew 21:33-46

Wicked Tenants

By Dr. Mickey Anders

Today’s Scripture passage offers a parable of Jesus as reported by Matthew. It is one of only three parables to be found in all three Synoptic Gospels, so we have to conclude that it is an important one. But it is a parable with many levels of meaning. Today I want to examine several of these layers like peeling an onion.

On the surface level, the parable of the tenants is clearly presented by Matthew as an allegory. The landowner represents God. The vineyard represents the Kingdom of God. The tenants are the religious leaders. The slaves are the prophets. The son is Jesus. The new tenants are most likely the church.

Matthew’s interpretation relates to the story of salvation history. God entrusted his kingdom to the Israelites during Old Testament times. When they steered off course, God sent the prophets to try to correct them. Most did not listen to the prophets. Finally, God decided to send his son Jesus to make clear God’s message. But the leaders turned against Jesus and finally had him killed. Then the majority of the Jewish people refused to accept Christ. So the kingdom was given to a new people, the church.

I think this message is quite obvious from the text. But today I want to move far beyond that context to see how we can apply this parable to people today who trample on the grace of God.

1) God’s patience

The first lesson that we can learn from this story relates to God’s incredible patience. This story is really a story about God. We find that the landowner had invested a lot in the vineyard. The verbs in verse 33 tell us that he planted, set, dug, built, let and went. These strong verbs point to the active, caring, loving attitude of the landowner toward his vineyard. Then he went away entrusting the responsibility to the tenants to till, cultivate, and harvest. He expected his vineyard to produce fruit.

We must notice that the landowner placed a phenomenal amount of trust in the tenants, just as God does in us. When ready to claim his harvest, the master sends representatives, not once, but twice. His patience seems unending. The first group was beaten, stoned, or killed. The second group met the same fate. But the owner was still patient. Finally thinking it inconceivable that his own son would be rejected, he sent him. “They will respect my son,” he says.

However, the wicked tenants failed their final opportunity. In the ultimate test, the son was cast out and killed. An ordinary landlord would have sought revenge on these ungrateful tenants. He might bring a legal action against them or even armed forces to claim what is rightfully his. But this landowner is like God, not like us. God sent his Son! The essential character of God is love, and such love is patient.

But this passage also makes clear that there is an end to God’s patience. When the Pharisees are asked what the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns, they reply, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers, who will give him the fruit in its season.” (v. 41) God is patient, but we should remember that there is a limit to God’s patience.

In school, many classes have daily tests. In other classes there are pop quizzes. The same can be said for life. We have daily tests of character and sometimes pop tests which really challenge our commitments. But, like in school, we must face a final exam. The Bible says there will come a time when God’s patience has reached its limits. At that point, the judgment and justice of God will prevail.

2) Stewardship

The second way to apply this parable to modern times is to point out our responsibility. I believe we must see ourselves as the tenants in this parable. We are now the tenants of the Kingdom of God. The tenants were provided with everything they needed. They were given the freedom to do the task as they wished. This was an opportunity for growth! But they blew it.

Instead of showing faith, they resorted to greed and their murderous instincts. The behavior of these tenants was the perfect example of humanity’s rebellious response to God’s love. The people of God resisting God’s love.

We may pretend to be surprised by the murder of the slaves and the murder of the son, but we only have to look at this week’s newspaper to be reminded of the dark side of human nature. This week in Milwaukee a mob of 20 young boys beat an adult man to death with bats, shovels, and boards. The fracas started when one of the boys threw an egg at 36-year-old Charlie Young Jr. Young responded by hitting one of the 14 year olds, but then the gang of young people grew. And soon a ten-year-old child was involved, leaving the scene with blood splattered all over his shoes. He may be the youngest child every accused of murder in Milwaukee. (1)

One commentator observed that the wicked tenants are those who:

1) do not want to give fruit to the owner
2) reject the owner’s authority, and
3) work for themselves. (2)

The servants in this parable worked the land, but they treated the land as if it was their own. Somehow that they forgot that it never belonged to them, they forgot, or rejected their covenant with the landowner.

They owed something to the landowner that they were unwilling to give. The same is true for us. It is clear that we owe something back to God. There is something expected of those who are in the kingdom, namely living under the authority of the Owner, and produce and giving back the proper fruit.

These wicked tenants forgot that they were merely stewards or managers. We sometimes forget too. We are under the delusion of ownership. We think we own things, when in reality God is the owner of all things. All we have belongs to God. We are stewards.

What does “ownership” really mean to us anyway? My father owns forty acres of land back in Arkansas. But what does that really mean? My father is 79 years old. He may have possession of that land for 10 or 20 more years, but one day he will be buried on that land. The land will own him. The same is true to a lesser degree of all that we own. There are no U-Haul trailers behind hearses. We leave everything when we die. So we see that the Bible is accurate when it describes us as stewards. We have possession of things for a little while.

And the Bible reminds us that we owe something back to God. When we hear the church speak of giving ten percent of our money as a tithe, many people bristle, they feel as if the church is entering into their personal business. If we really understood who is the real owner, we would not object to paying our tribute to God.

The workers in the parable had grown accustomed to a sense of ownership. Of course they thought they were the owners. They had worked hard for what they had. But the landowner says, “You don’t own anything, never did.” And God says, “You never owned what you didn’t create. You are our guests on earth, not rulers, servants not masters,”Once we get over the delusion of ownership we can really enjoy the good things that God has placed in the garden for our enjoyment. We just need to share it with the other guests as well.As part of the judgment, Matthew makes it clear that the new tenants have the same responsibility as the old—”to give him the fruit in its season” v. 41. New tenants who think that they are working for themselves could face the same fate as the old ones.3) Jesus is the Cornerstone.  In verse 42, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23. “The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner.” The rejected stone—the crucified Christ—becomes the cornerstone of God’s new edifice.Verse 44 is missing in several important manuscripts, and is oddly placed. Some scholars have considered it an editorial gloss, but more recent scholarship regards it as authentic. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” The imagery has its roots in two OT passages:” He will be a sanctuary, but for both houses of Israel,
he will be a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Many will stumble over it, fall, be broken,
be snared, and be captured.” (Isaiah 8:14-15).”You saw until a stone was cut out without hands,
which struck the image on its feet that were of iron and clay,
and broke them in pieces….” (Daniel 2:34)

Verse 44 is reminiscent of the comment, “You can’t break God’s laws; you can only break yourself on them.” It is rather like saying, “You can’t break the law of gravity; you can only break yourself by ignoring it.”

People in every age have the option of accepting or rejecting Jesus. If we accept the stone, it becomes our sure foundation. If we reject it, we are the losers.This imagery reminds us that our faith is to be the cornerstone on which our whole lives are built. It’s not a hobby; it is a central activity. It is not a peripheral activity; it is the central activity.

We are accustomed to running programs on our computers. We may run Word, Excel or Photoshop. But at the heart of the computer is the central operating system.  Every program is managed and run through this central operating system. It determines how everything else runs on your computer.This text says that Jesus is to be the central operating system of our lives. Jesus is the key element in our lives.

May we learn from this passage about the incredible, but limited patience of God. May we become responsible stewards instead of wicked tenants. May we build our lives on Jesus Christ, the cornerstone.

Endnotes:1) Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 1, 2002,2) Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith, pp. 298-9

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2002 Dr. Mickey Anders.  Used by permission.