Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Sunday Reflection - The Wicked Tenants

Do you remember the parable of the wicked tenants, the murderous usurpers who attempt to steal a husbandman's vineyard for themselves only to come to a miserable end? (Matt. 34-44)

It's a terrifying warning. What will happen to the tenants who beat, stone and kill the owner's servants and murder his son, asks Jesus of the priests and elders. They reply, unwittingly condemning themselves, "He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons." (Matt. 21:41) 

So it came to pass, and I usually take the opportunity to wax large on the siege of Jerusalem and beat on the iniquitous, apostate heretics infesting the Western Church. Watch out, you brood of vipers or the vineyard will be taken from you.

All well and good, and doubtless an appropriate sermon at, say, the Church of England's York Synod or the Episcopal Church's General Convention. But pause for a moment and consider the features of the vineyard.

It stands for Israel of course, planted by God, with a hedge, the Law, a winepress, the Altar, and a watchtower, the Temple. All of this is present in the new Israel of the Church, which is called to "render him the fruits in their seasons." What is this fruit and where is it offered?

On the wine press which sits between hedge and tower, Law and Temple, as does the Cross between the Incarnation and the Resurrection. And what is the Cross but Christ's sacrificial altar, on which the perfect fruit of the vineyard, righteousness, the Word made flesh, is offered to the Father.

The fruit then, ultimately, is Christ himself, righteousness incarnate, sacrificed on Calvary, and we enter into union with this offering and "yield it up" sacramentally at the altars of of our churches. There, we abide in Christ and he in us. "Abide in me, and I in you," says Jesus,  "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me." (Jn. 15:4)

This, surely, is the endeavor of the Christian life; as faithful tenants of the vineyard to live ever more closely in Christ, offering up the fruit which is pleasing to the Father, Jesus himself. And as we do, by the grace of God and the working of the Spirit, become channels of his righteousness in the world. 

Unless you're a wicked heretic of course, in which case the concluding words of our Lord ring true with awful effect, "And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder." (Matt. 21:44) 

And so we come full circle. Take note, Justsin Welby and, for that matter, everyone else.

God bless,



Anonymous said...

I’ve always had ‘some’ difficulty with the commonly held interpretation of that parable. I suppose the main ‘issue’ I have is the assumption that the allegory indicates that God is absent, when he patently isn’t. But the specificity of the condemnation bothered me too.

It didn’t really ‘click’ until I was an officer, watching, learning. The best were always those who were there, but weren’t. Directing, leading supporting without micromanaging. I realise I’m a product of my life but I see God as the ultimate senior officer, setting the overall strategic aim, the ROE’s, what weapons, tools and support I receive. The (Oh so many) tactical ‘screwups’ can be laid squarely at my door that way. A good officer doesn’t want unthinking automatons, following orders to the letter ‘just because’, he wants thinking, moral subordinates who do what is right because ‘they’ know it is so and guides, supports and rewards that learning experience.

I’m most definitely no theologian but, whilst to those hearing Jesus speak, the Sanhedrin could be immediately seen (as they were) as the absentee landlords, was he really accusing ‘just’ them of being the wicked tenants?

I suspect it’s partly my upbringing (and church, we have ‘only’ lay preachers) that makes me always question the assumption of pastors, priests and bishops and even ‘the church’ as shepherds, interpreters and intercessors between us and God. Whilst all the parables and allegories in the bible ‘seem’ to be aimed squarely at specific individuals or groups they’re really … aimed at ‘all’ of us.

Who was usurping the power and the ‘produce’ of the vineyard? The common interpretation condemns the Sahedrin (Israel) and claims the church as ‘better tenants’. I view it as a condemnation of all (including the church) who place themselves as ‘the power’ and claim Gods ‘produce’ as their own.

“(the) accusation that the Sanhedrin are the wicked tenants is also an indictment against us all. We are all guilty of claiming that God-given dominion justifies God-ordained domination!”

The classical interpretation robs us of both responsibility and the choice to repent (again, not the classical ‘sorrow and confession’ interpretation of the word metanoia, but the actual meaning ‘to turn around, change ones mind and actions’). I choose to take the parable ‘personally’ (and just wish some others, especially in the church hierarchies, did the same).

(It may seem wrong-headed or simplistic to some but to me the allegory seems clear. The servants are the prophets. The son is ‘The Son’. The fruit? We, our very souls. The Sahedrin, the church all wish dominion, to dominate us. We ‘belong’ to God and those who attempt to steal what is his ...)

LSP said...

Anon, I think we have to take the parable personally and then the vineyard becomes the "garden of the soul" in which Christ is incarnate, crucified and risen.

I should've included that in the post, but was taken aback by the hedge/law/incarnation, wine press/altar/cross, tower/temple/resurrection realization.

And yes, the fruit's a righteous soul, which is so precisely because it's indwelt by Christ, righteousness himself.

To put it another way, he is the sacrifice and in union with his offering we ourselves become holy.

Of course there's far more to be said, and being a late developer much of it began to swim into focus after the Masses. Hmmmm.

Curiously, the early Church Fathers spent a fair amount of time reflecting on the "absentee landlord" thing. I like your military analogy.

jenny said...

He isn't an absentee landlord at all, and yes all of us are included as the wicked tenants, unless the very depths of our hearts are aimed at Him. The analogy can be as rich as LSP detailed, yet still as simple as Psalm 33:13-22.

LSP said...

Well said, Jenny. And I'd say there's virtue in simplicity.