17th Sunday after Trinity

28 September 2017

Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.9-17; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-end

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Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

MATTHEW’s parable of the wicked tenants, found also in Mark and Luke (Mark 12.1-12, Luke 20.9-19), builds on and reinforces the parable of the vineyard owner and his two sons (Matthew 21.23-32). All three versions draw on Isaiah 5.1-7, in which what begins as a love song, rich in images of fruitfulness and harvest, takes a dark turn (Isaiah 5.2-4).

The prophet evokes all that has gone wrong in the relationship between God and the beloved, and chosen “house of Israel” and “people of Judah”. They have not yielded a harvest of justice and righteousness in loving gratitude for the favour lavished on them (Isaiah 5.7). As the prophecy unfolds, it will become clear that they are to be uprooted from the land and made subject to invaders.

All of this would have been deeply instilled in the audience of chief priests and elders to whom Jesus relates his story.

At its root lies Isaiah’s concern for the health of God’s covenant with the people chosen to be a holy nation. Jesus has already warned (in the parable of the two sons) that the covenant will admit those who genuinely seek a restored relationship with God before candidates who depend solely on ancestral claims (Matthew 21.28-32).

With the parable of the vineyard, things come closer to home. A history of contempt for, and rejection of, the prophets is written into the fate of the landowner’s slaves, who are variously beaten, killed, and stoned. A little later, in the extended scene that Matthew places in the temple (Matthew 21-23), Jesus will make this explicit in his lament over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matthew 23.37).

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According to the same logic, the final crime in the plot of the parable has not yet been committed: the murder of the landowner’s son. But that is not an insight that the temple hierarchy are yet prepared to permit themselves. The crowds may have acclaimed Jesus as “Son of David” as he entered the city (Matthew 21.9), but the chief priests and elders are still working to discredit his authority.

In that light, it is not entirely astonishing that they should have fallen into the same trap twice. At the end of the parable of the two sons, Jesus had invited them to say which of them did his father’s will. Their answer put them in the awkward position of realising that doing God’s will might not be the same thing as outwardly observing the law.

This time, Jesus asks them what the landowner, suffering the loss of his slaves and his son, will do to the wicked tenants. Edward Horne reminds us that the audience would have been landowners themselves, and, when they recommend that evil deeds should be harshly rewarded, we get a glimpse of what they would do in the same situation (Matthew 21.41).

Horne points out the irony of this: they have automatically taken the part of the landowner in the story, and yet the obvious interpretation casts them as the “rebellious tenants” (“The Parable of the Tenants as Indictment”, Journal of the Study of the New Testament, 71 (1999)).

Jesus moves abruptly out of parable into scriptural interpretation as he quotes Psalm 118.22-23. The metaphor has changed from vineyard to building-stone, and the focus is firmly on the final judgement and the coming of the Kingdom (Matthew 20.42-44). That the priests and Pharisees understand the message is significant — but its effect is to inspire self-serving fear, not a change of heart. They will act with the dominant power, and with inevitable consequences (Matthew 21.46).

The account that Paul gives of his faith in Christ, the engine that drives him onwards to know the power of the resurrection and to share in Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3.10), is as radical an alternative future to the one foreshadowed in Matthew 21.46 as it is possible to imagine. Although he has every reason to be “confident in the flesh” as a circumcised member of the people of Israel — a Benjaminite by birth, and a Pharisee by legal training — he refuses to claim any advantage from these outward markers (Philippians 3.4b-7).

His only claim is to know Christ Jesus as his Lord. His only hope is that he, too, will share the resurrection (Philippians 3.8, 10-11). This is a lifelong journey towards the fulfilment of the “call of God in Christ Jesus”.

The NRSV’s rendering of Philippians 3.12 falls short of the dynamic sense of growing in Christ towards Christ which makes Tyndale’s version worth the wrestling: “Not as though I had already attained to it [the resurrection], either were already perfect; but I follow, if that I may comprehend that wherein I am comprehended of Christ Jesu.”

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