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Matthew 21:33-46

After several of Jesus’ parables, he finishes with what has become a well-known phrase, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (or a close variation). The implication is there is a difference between hearing and listening. To hear means the words spoken have merely reverberated in the ears of the audience. To listen, however, means the words spoken have been heard and have penetrated the mind of the audience so they have come to understand the deeper truth hidden within the words. It should be no surprise that when Jesus used this phrase it always was following his telling of a parable, since the meaning was never found in the words themselves but was hidden under the surface.

While this week’s passage of the “wicked tenants” is introduced by Jesus as a parable, there is no need for Jesus to conclude with, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” While the true meaning of the story is under the surface—like any good parable—Matthew’s version of this parable (cf. Mk 12:1-12; Lk 20:9-19) includes so many obvious signposts for his original Jewish audience, and for us today, that it really didn’t require people to listen. Anyone merely able to hear it would know exactly what Jesus meant, including the Pharisees to whom the parable was directed.

At the beginning of chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem, initiating his final movement toward the cross. Jesus immediately puts the religious leaders on notice by cleansing the temple, which had become “a den of robbers” (v 13, NRSV). Soon after, Jesus engages in a rather lengthy and pointed discourse with the religious leaders, a part of which is the parable of the wicked tenants.

According to the parable a landowner planted a vineyard, which he then rented to farmers. It was customary for tenant farmers to give a portion of their harvest to the landowner. So, the landowner sent servants to the tenant farmers to collect his portion. Rather than giving the landowner his portion of the harvest, the tenants beat the servants and even killed some. This vicious encounter happened not once, but twice. The third time, the landowner decided to send his own son to collect his portion. The tenants were not deterred, however, from their evil intentions and violent ways, and killed the son just the same.

There would have been no doubt in the minds of Jesus’ audience, both the Pharisees and those gathered around, that the vineyard in the story represented Israel. The vineyard, along with the details of a wine press and watchtower, would have been recognized as an allusion to Isaiah 5 (vv 2,7) where the prophet states, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” Having made this obvious connection to Israel, it would only have been natural to see that the servants sent by the landowner represented the prophets sent by God. The servants were beaten, killed, and stoned. It was simply a matter of Old Testament history that the prophets often met a similar fate when sent to the house of Israel. A third significant allusion in the parable that would have been obvious—not necessarily to those listening to Jesus tell the parable in the temple courts but certainly to those reading Matthew’s account on this side of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, including us today—was the landowner’s final attempt to collect his harvest by sending his own son.

Given the Jewish context, Jesus knew there was only one culturally acceptable way for the landowner to respond; destroy the wicked tenants and rent the vineyard to other tenants who would give the landowner the harvest when it was ready. By asking a simple question, as Jesus often did, he forced the religious leaders to pass their own judgement by publically stating the due consequences of the wicked tenants. But to be sure there was no ambiguity, to be sure even those who were not listening understood, Jesus says directly to the Pharisees, “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (v 43).

While the gospel of Matthew was written primarily for the community of Jewish believers, the reader is reminded throughout the gospel that the salvation of God through Jesus Christ has been extended to the Gentiles as well; from the prominence of the magi in the birth narrative at the beginning to the Great Commission at the very end.

And so, as benefactors of the Gentile mission, we hear this parable as good news as Jesus affirms that the kingdom of God will be given to “other tenants” (i.e., the Gentiles). However, we must not look past the qualification that the people to whom the kingdom will now be given are expected to produce the fruits of the kingdom, as was expected of the original tenants as well. In other words, we must allow this passage to continue functioning the way it was originally intended, that is, as a judgement narrative. We must in humility search our hearts and consider whether we too, as the new tenants of the vineyard, have come to stand in judgement alongside the Pharisees.

The way in which a pastor will lead her or his congregation through this reflection obviously will differ greatly from one context to the next. Only you know the extent to which this passage should be held up as a mirror to your people. Regardless, here are some questions you may consider as you reflect on your congregation and this text.

  1. To what extent have we come to treat the kingdom of God as if it were our own to do with as we pleased? Has the kingdom come to reflect God’s priorities or our priorities?

We believe God’s grace is sufficient and we should preach that unequivocally. However, it seems this truth at times is used by some to downplay the seriousness of God’s judgement. As a result, the judgement proclaimed by Jesus in this passage somehow never really ends up applying to “us,” but always to “them.” We are never the ones subject to God’s judgement. Yet, today we see around the world that the Church is becoming less fruitful in some places, while becoming very fruitful in others. It seems as though the center of the vineyard is in the process of shifting from one people to another, from one tenant to another. Let those with ears to hear listen.

I expect that every pastor has a handful of people that come to mind when reflecting on this passage and the questions above. The work of intentionally, and with care, helping our congregations renew their imaginations of what it means to reflect the kingdom of God in our lives seems like an insurmountable task at times. However, as ministers of the gospel we must maintain an optimism of grace that believes a heart filled with the love of God will indeed drive out all that may stand against the kingdom. May our words, even those that speak of judgement when necessary, be filled full with God’s love so that God’s people may be filled with the same and produce much fruit for the kingdom.