The Villains of the Story
Since Old Testament times, Jewish teachers had used the
landowner and the vineyard, like the shepherd and his sheep, as a
picture of God and his people. So the moment the people heard Jesus
start a parable about a vineyard they will have thought, "Hello, this
one�s about us" (Matthew 21.33-46).
They did not need to have it explained - and neither did the chief
priests and the Pharisees. The householder was God, his servants were
the prophets, and the tenants were the faithless kings and religious
leaders who down the ages had led Israel from one catastrophe to the
This was a direct attack by the itinerant Galilean carpenter against
the established order.
And this time he wasn�t sounding off in some northern peasant
village. It was in the capital city itself. It was in Jerusalem. And
that spelled trouble.
This passage in Matthew�s Gospel is the biblical equivalent of
dynamite. It opens with the arrival of Jesus at Jerusalem on what we
know as Palm Sunday. In a carefully prepared publicity stunt, he rides
in on a donkey and is greeted by the crowd with wild excitement as if he
were the king.
This was hardly likely to endear him to the authorities.
Then, as Matthew recounts, the first thing he does is to march into
the Temple and cast out the money changers and the sellers of
sacrificial pigeons. And he justifies his actions by quoting the words
of Jeremiah. This was the Old Testament prophet who more than any of the
others earned the hatred of the religious and civic authorities of his
day. He ended up slung into a dungeon for his outright denunciation - in
God�s name - of their faithless policies and behaviour.
Again, quoting this source was not the way for Jesus to make friends
and influence people in high places.
Then the very next day Jesus has an open argument with the chief
priests and elders about the preaching of John the Baptist and about his
own authority to teach. The argument that ends in stony silence on the
part of the religious leaders.
And it is into that silence that Jesus lobs the bombshell of the
parable we have just read this morning. Small wonder that "they
perceived that he was speaking about them", and tried to arrest him.
But what lesson might we learn from all this?
In the traditional Christian interpretation of the parable, the
faithless tenants who kill the Son are the Jewish leaders who are then
destroyed themselves. Christians are the beneficiaries to whom the
kingdom of God is given in their place.
But that interpretation runs the danger of making us smug and
complacent. And whatever the intention of Jesus� parables it was never
that. They might be meant to encourage us, and fortify us, or sometimes
to scold us and warn us, but never ever to make us complacent.
So how are we to interpret it?
Well, the villains of the story were the tenants. They were people
who held the vineyard as trustees, on behalf of the owner and on behalf
of his heir. And their great sin lay in trying to take it into their own
So let us think of the vineyard not as the House of Israel, but as
the Christian Church. And let us see in the tenants, not the far off
historical characters like Caiaphas and his fellow priests and elders,
but ourselves, who are the trustees and stewards of the Church in our
The questions posed by the parable then become, "How do we exercise
our own trusteeship, our own stewardship? Do we try to posses the Church
for ourselves, and work in it just for our own benefit? Or do we truly
play our part in it for God�s glory and for the sake of those whose
future inheritance it will be?"
That is a question each of us has to answer for ourselves. And I am
not suggesting that we should get no pleasure and or spiritual benefit
out of our Church membership, and the exercise of our various roles
within the Christian community.
But the parable does contain a solemn warning that we should always
remember that we are tenants, not owners, of our Church - the Church
being understood both as the building and the spiritual heritage - and
that we hold it in trust for God and for future generations of