The Wicked Servants
Pentecost 20 Matthew 21:33-46
Sometimes, conflicts between people get very hot and hotter still and they just accelerate until that conflict finally explodes. I remember being in a forest fire in northern Minnesota many years ago. The brush around me was flickering with flame and suddenly, right before my eyes, a tree exploded in total fire. This large pine tree was all ablaze. It was an intense inferno.
Such can be conflicts with other people.
Have you ever had a conflict with someone and that conflict just grew and grew and grew and then finally exploded?
Maybe your conflict was/is with your husband or wife and the fires of feelings grew more intense. Believe it or not, my wife and I have had arguments that started small and then heated up and then exploded in rage. Both of us. We don’t like to admit it, but we are human and that has happened more than once in our marriage of more than forty years. The argument starts small and then the blaze of our feelings gets more energy and finally explodes in a shouting match.
That’s the way it is with us human beings. We don’t like it and are not proud of it, but it happens.
Maybe you have had a conflict with your son or daughter or in-laws and that conflict which started out small and grew into enormous proportions and finally exploded.
Maybe you had/have a conflict with a person at work and as the months and years have gone by, that conflict has grown into a major inferno, blaze and forest fire. It started out like a little fire but that fire has spread to epic proportions between you and that person at work.
Or maybe the conflict has been with your neighbor or a person at school.
We don’t like it when the fires of conflict are burning. We become upset. We become distracted. We burn that person in our mind with flaming words and feelings. O yes, we wish we were like that and didn’t do that but to be honest, most of us if not all of us do.
This conflict, this small fire between Jesus and the Pharisees, began early in his ministry. It was right after the call of Matthew where Jesus had dinner with the so-called scum of society: the tax collectors, and other sinners and prostitutes. Right at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was hanging out with the wrong people, in the eyes of the Pharisees. Pretty soon Jesus was doing other inappropriate things to offend the Pharisees. He violated the Sabbath regulations that the Pharisees were imposing on the people. Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. As early in the Jesus story as Mark 3:6, the New Testament says that the “Pharisees held counsel with the Herodians how to destroy him.”
In other words, from the “get go,” the Pharisees were out to kill Jesus. From the “get go,” the Pharisees were so secretly angry at Jesus that they wanted to kill him. I don’t think that Jesus perceived at that moment how intense the Pharisees hatred of him was.
Three years passed and that conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was growing hotter and hotter by the week and finally in the last week of Jesus’ ministry, it was to the exploding point. That is our story for today.
In Matthew, chapters 21-24, this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, when Jesus is in Jerusalem, reaches epic proportions. If a student of the Bible reads Matthew 21-24, you will find thirteen consecutive incidents of a growing conflict and tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. It is like a person is in the middle of a forest fire and the bushes and trees around you are exploding in flame. In Matthew 21-24, there are all kinds of fires exploding.
For example, in Matthew 21-24, Jesus begins by casting out the money changers from the temple and saying that the temple leaders made God’s temple a den of robbers. Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all out, overturning the tables of the money changers. This is the angriest that we see Jesus in the story about his life. Jesus then came from that temple and saw a fig tree that produced no fruit and cursed that fig tree and it withered on the spot. That is the way the Pharisees were: they looked good and green like a flush tree but there was not fruit on that fine looking tree. He told the Pharisees that the tax collectors and prostitutes would get into heaven before they did. He said that the Pharisees were a bunch of hypocrites who were a brood of vipers who would not escape their sentence to burn in hell. Ouch. The Pharisees were the symbolic children of those who killed the prophets in the Old Testament and they killed John the Baptist and were going to kill Jesus himself. Talk about “in your face” with the truth.
It is within this mood, we approach the story for today. It is a powerful parable that tells us the Pharisees were the ones who killed the prophets in the Old Testament, and would kill the Son of God in the near future and would kill the apostles of the church also in the near future.
Let’s get into Jesus’ parable for today. We know that Jesus was locked into a steady confrontation with the Pharisees and and he created the following parable about them.
There was a man who was the owner of a vineyard. The owner took a trip and put his vineyard under the care and supervision of some renters. These renters were expected to make a payment to the owner for the rental of the vineyard. The owner was gone for a while. The owner sent a messenger to collect the payment due and the renters beat up the representative. The owner then sent a second representative to collect the payment due and the renters beat up that envoy and actually killed him. The owner then sent many envoys to collect the payment due and the renters beat them up and killed them. The owner was persistent. The owner finally sent his own son to collect the money due. The owner thought to himself, “They will surely respect my own son.” But the renters actually killed the owner’s son. Can you imagine. The renters said among themselves: “Let’s kill the son and so we will have the inheritance. The vineyard will be ours and we won’t have to pay rent.” What perverted logic. And Jesus continued the story. And what will the owner do? He will come and kill the renters. Yes he will. The owner will come and kill those evil renters and find new renters who will pay him the rent that is due. I tell you Pharisees the truth. The kingdom of God will be taken away from you Pharisees and given to people who will pay the rent and produce the fruit of righteousness.
The Gospel of Matthew adds, “When these Pharisaical leaders realized that he told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him (and have him killed ), but they feared the crowd and went away.” Until a better time, at night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the crowd wasn’t around. The Pharisees would then arrest him and have him killed.
That was the Pharisee’s goal: to kill the Son. They had already killed the messengers of the owner. Now they were plotting to kill the Son.
Wow. What a zinger. What a confrontation. What an “in your face” parable Jesus created.
So, what did Jesus mean by this parable that he told against the Pharisees?
The renters were the Pharisees who didn’t want to pay the rent and acknowledge that God was the owner of the vineyard and expected a rent payment. The Pharisees wanted the vineyard for themselves. These Pharisaical leaders silenced the prophets of God, the representatives of God, who God had sent to them throughout the Old Testament. They silenced the voice of God who was saying to them, “I own this vineyard. It is mine. Pay the rent. The rent is fruit. The rent is a righteous life of goodness, kindness and mercy. I have entrusted this vineyard to you and it is not yours. I expect payment.” The Pharisees silenced these representatives from God again and again in the Old Testament. The Pharisees shut up the mouths of the prophets by killing them. And then God finally sent his Son, Jesus, the heir of the vineyard, the future owner of the vineyard. And they killed the Son too.
Jesus wanted the Pharisees to know that God knew they were the ones who killed the prophets. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to know that he knew that they were going to kill him in the near future. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to know that they would be punished by God for killing the prophets of old, for killing the Son, and for not producing the fruit of righteous lives that God had rightfully expected of them.
So how does this parable of Jesus apply to us today in our world some twenty-one centuries later?
We too silence the messengers of God to us, especially when they tell us unpleasant things about our lives. That we are phonies. That what we are doing is not right. We all have those people who come to us and are honest with us about things which are imperfect in our lives.
My messenger from God is most often my wife. She tells it like it is about me. She actually tells me that this is her God given gift, to notice the flaws and imperfections of my personality and to point them out. I often grumble and groan and cuss inside when she reminds me that I am acting like my father of old, that I am acting like a spoiled child, and that I am insisting on my own way. Yes, way too often, my wife is my personal messenger from God, God’s angel, God’s prophet for me.
The prophets of God in our lives are not usually the paid preacher or TV evangelist or some famous preacher like Billy Graham. Rather, the messengers of God to us are usually must closer and nearer, like a wife, a husband, a child, a parent, a dear and close friend who have the willingness to be honest with you.
And deep down inside, we often want to silence the honesty of God’s messenger to us. We are like the Pharisees in that we want to silence the voices of the messengers of God to us.
Or to our nation. Or about our nation. Yes, we want to silence those messengers from God who tell us the truth about our nation and how it is perceived by many Third World nations.
This theme is part of Jesus’ parable. The question is: how have you and I been silencing the messengers of God to our lives?
I think of common illustrations such as the following: I think of the wife who says, “You are a workaholic and you are rarely emotionally home for the kids and me.” I think of a husband who says, “Honey, you have become an alcoholic and you refuse to come to grips with your drinking problem which is affecting our whole family.” I think of the parishoner who says to the pastor, “You weren’t there for me when I needed you.”
The list goes on and on within our personal lives, where we often do not listen to the local messengers from God in our lives.
The fundamental problem for the Pharisees is that they were not producing the fruit of righteousness. They were not living lives of goodness, kindness, gentleness and compassion for those in need. The Pharisees were self centered and more concerned about their religious status and income than about the needs of others.
God gave us life. God has the vineyard. The vineyard is God’s. God owns this world in which we live. And God expects rent from us as a payment for living in his vineyard. It is pretty simple. God expects the rent. And what is the rent that God wants from us? A life of love, kindness and compassion. What is the rent? To love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. Then is the rent. These are the fruits of righteousness. The Pharisees were not willing to pay the rent that God wanted and demanded from them for living in God’s vineyard.
God wants you and me to pay the rent also. God wants us to have righteousness fruit growing in our lives. The invitation in the parable is for us to pay the rent to the owner of the vineyard, God. And what is the rent? Moral lives of righteousness.
This is not a “work’s righteous” kind of life where we do loving works to be saved. No, not at all. If you are not the owner of your home, paying rent is part of life. That is the way it is: pay the rent or be evicted.
The rent payment that God wants from us is to live a morally righteous life that loves God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves.
In this passage, there is not only the threat of God punishing the renters who refused to pay the rent. There is a second threat in this parable in which Jesus teaches that God will find other people who will pay the rent and live moral lives of righteousness. God can and will always find people who will give God his due, who will live lives of goodness, kindness and compassion.
These people may live outside of the walls of the synagogues and churches, but God will find people who pay the rent, who live lives that are not morally perfect nor spiritually impeccable, but lives that are full of compassion and love. God will find those people, regardless of the religious label that they wear on the back of their spiritual shirts, and they will be God’s people.
In the parable today, we can hear the voice of condemnation and punishment. That is, God will kill the unresponsive renters and find others.
Or we can hear the voice of God today within this parable when God says to you and me in this moment:
“Listen to the voices of my messengers that I send to your life.”
“Pay the rent that I expect from you.”
God owns this vineyard of the world we live in. It is God’s. God expects rent, payment, a fee. What is the payment that God, the owner of this world wants from us? Fruit of righteousness. A life of love and compassion, for God and our neighbors.
To be honest, there are many people who enjoy paying the rent.
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