A Must Hear Parable
"Must See TV" was an advertising campaign of NBC's in 1993. It was first used in reference to the Seinfeld show and the Thursday night block of shows it anchored. Well, Jesus tells A Must Hear Parable. This is the only time I could find that Jesus introduces a parable saying, "Another parable you must hear." So, let's.
You must hear this as a familial not a transactional parable. You only hear it as the latter when you translate "landowner", "rented," and "tenant." Then you hear Jesus taking you to the realm of a business transaction. And you get that. You know what the relationship between a landowner and tenant is. You know how rent is agreed upon in advance, and how you will be evicted if you don't pay it.
The relationship of landlord and tenant was right in the wheelhouse of the Pharisees and Chief Priests. These are the 2 groups Jesus was speaking to. Verse 45 of our chapter says, "And when they had heard His parable, they knew that He spoke concerning them." The Old Testament Church leaders thought and spoke of salvation, righteousness, and the kingdom as a business transaction. Rather than thinking of the Old Testament as just that, a testament, a promise one makes in a family setting, they thought of it as a covenant. A covenant is something two parties agree to and is valid as long as each does their part.
The Old Testament Church had come to believe that the kingdom of God would come if they were righteous enough. And the Pharisees believed they were righteous enough with their tithing, dieting, and avoiding sinners.' The Sadducees believed they were that by being the leaders of the State. So, when Jesus starts talking in terms of a landowner renting out his vineyard to tenants, all of that makes sense. In this same way Jesus reached fisherman Peter by giving him a big catch of fish.
But everything changes if we more accurately translate instead of landholder, householder or the more literal housemaster. And it is not tenants but farmers or the more literal tillers of the soil. And no, it's not "rent," but "give out." Admittedly the word is only used in the New Testament in connection with this parable in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Admittedly in the Greek of this era outside of the New Testament "usage in general establishes that it describes a legal monetary contract in which an owner leases something that is his" (Dr. Ray Martens, Text Notes, 10/2/05, p.1). However, how it's used in the parable should control how we understand the word.
The word is ekdidomi. The first meaning is "to give out of one's house, power, hand, stores." The second meaning is "to give out, give up, give over." The third meaning is "to let out for hire." The word is a compound ek "out of" and didomi "give". What controls the meaning for me is that in the end, in the bare bones interpretation, Jesus says, "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who will produce the fruit of it." "Will be given" is the simple word didomi. Boom! This isn't about the kingdom as rented by God but as given by Him. Using plain didomi in the end should cause them to rethink ekdidomi earlier.
They should rethink things the way a little boy did. He told his mom not using the words but the concepts that he thought their relationship should be more like a business than a family. So, at the end of the day, he left a bill on the kitchen table. Washed the dishes - .50. Took out trash - .25. Fed the dog - .15. Total .90. Signed, Billy. When he goes upstairs to his bedroom he finds his mom's "bill." Making breakfast, lunch, and dinner no charge.' Washing 2 loads of laundry no charge.' Taking and picking you up from school "no charge." He barely sees the "love Mom" at the end before he's running down the hall into her arms.
This is a must hear parable. You must hear what fruit the Housemaster with the many-roomed house sent His servants to get. He sure sends a lot of them. Read Jeremiah. You'll hear the Lord say, "Since you came out of Egypt till this day, I have sent you My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them" (7:25). "The Lord sent you all His servants the prophets again and again" (25:4). "Listen to the words of My prophets whom I have sent again and again" (26:5). "I have sent to you all my prophets sending them again and again saying turn now every man from evil deeds; don't go after other gods" (35:15). All the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, and God the Son preached the same thing: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is here and the King is too. He is gentle and lowly calling you into His kingdom of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Ah but you think, at least in the Old Testament the Lord came looking for things from His people. Nope. In Psalm 50:12 He says, "If I were hungry I would not tell you. For the world is Mine and all it contains The cattle on a thousand hills are mine." What He came looking for from His people in all times and eras is their sins. "Come let us reason together though your sins be scarlet I will make them white as snow." He desired not sacrifice from them but to be merciful to them. He came not looking for health from healthy people but for sickness from sick people.
All the prophets from Able to Zechariah, to John, to Jesus were sent by the Housemaster to call sinners into His many-roomed house. To call them into a room that He had sent His only Son into flesh and blood to prepare for them. This is the last week of that Son's life. This is after 3 years of preaching repent the kingdom of heaven is here and the King invites you in. This is after they have heard of the Good Samaritan who rescues the half-dead and pays his room. After they have heard that Prodigal Sons and even sons lost in the Father's house are welcomed home. After they have heard the Father has prepared all things for the marriage feast of His Son and they are invited.
This is a must hear parable, and you must hear that it's over the top more than most. Jesus tells them the Housemaster sent 3 slaves. They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. But the House Father isn't done. He sends still more and the farmers in His vineyard do the same thing to them. Can't you hear St. Stephen's voice ringing out right before being stoned, "Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?" And no one could point to one they hadn't.
But that wasn't enough. After they had persecuted or killed everyone who called them to repentance, to faith, and to freedom from sin, death, and the devil, "Last of all, He sent His Son to them." And God says to Himself, "They will be moved to respect Him." Are you kidding me? Would you send your child into such a situation? No reasonable person would, but the gospel is not from reason but from the bottomless depths of God's love.
You must hear that this parable is so far over the top it has to be teaching us of things of heaven not earth. The parable is divine truth serum. Outside the parable, in earthly reality, after the Chief Priests and Pharisees hear this parable, they say before all the people in the Temple that they are literally "worthless wretches." They say what we do every Sunday: They are poor, miserable sinners who deserve temporal and eternal punishment. This is the moment that happened regularly on TV's Perry Mason. On the stand, the guilty person breaks down and confesses to everything and pronounces himself worthy of death.
More over the topness is seen in that Jesus leaps from a parable set in a vineyard, an agriculture setting, to an architectural one. Jesus quotes from Psalm 118. A Psalm they were all singing as part of the Feat of Passover, a Psalm the Jews knew was about the Christ. A stone rejected by the builders rises to unimaginable heights and it is marvelous in our eyes. That's what they were singing and that's what was happening right before their eyes.
By this time in Christ's life, you've seen how they rejected Him. They rejected Him because of where He came from, Nazareth, and who He came from. They thought He was the illegitimate son of a carpenter. They thought He was a despised Samaritan and a demon. They early on sought to murder Him. They couldn't and didn't deny His healing of lepers, casting out demons, and raising the dead. Yet they wanted Him dead. They rejected Him even as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and was hailed rightly as King of the Jews.
Though rejected by the leaders who thought of themselves as the builders of God's Kingdom, Jesus continues to rise till His most glorious moment when He is hanging damned and dying on the cross. Only people who know they are damned and dying themselves can see that this is His glory. Only those who know they have nothing to offer God but their sins can see the crucified Christ as marvelous in their eyes. Only those who are brought to the realization that only sin and death course through their body and blood can see the forgiveness and life pouring out from His hands and feet.
The kingdom of God with all its glories, all it's blessings, all its life belongs to you. You who gather at the cross to drink deeply of all the blessings of the Father's House the grace, the mercy, the peace - that flow from the death of His only beloved Son are producing the fruits of it. Get the order right. You have to be in the vineyard first, in the kingdom first, before you can bring forth the fruit, right? You can't produce the fruit of either vineyard or kingdom without first being in them.
The Old Testament church leaders in charge of the vineyard didn't partake of its fruit, and so produced none of their own. But that ain't you. You partake of the forgiveness Jesus won by the holy life He lived and the guilty death He died in your place. Having all your sins let go, you let go the sins of others. You each week praise the Lord whose mercy endures forever and so have mercy to spare. The Son gives you His inheritance, so having this world and the world without end, you have a superabundance of all things. These are the things you must hear each week, and they aren't parables. They're reality. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (20171022); Matthew 21: 33-43