Matthew 21:33-46 – Sermon – They Are Us

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Matthew 21:33-46
They are Us
Allegory.  An allegory is a form of literature in which a story or image stands for something else.  It is a way of telling us a story while making us think about another one.  There are some famous pieces of literature that are allegory.  Plato’s Republic  is a big one.  In that one he talks about the perfect society.  Dante’s The Divine Comedy is another one, where he talks about the levels of hell.  These are all stories that point to other issues of the day.
Some of the most famous uses of allegory are found in Aesop’s Fables.  I know you know some of these stories.  How about this one…[SLIDE] this is an artist’s picture of the boy who cried wolf.  We know this story. A boy is to watch over some sheep and cries wolf.  The whole town comes running but no wolf.  The boy does it again, still no wolf.  Then the wolf really shows up and the townspeople don’t come running because they think he is lying.  Is this really simply a story about some sheep, a boy, and a wolf?  No.  Raise your hand if you never realized this was simply a story to share a moral.  Allegory points us beyond the story because the whole point of the story is to draw your attention to that point.
[SLIDE]  Try this one.  This is another one of Aesop’s fables, the grasshopper and the ant.  In this story the grasshopper goofs off all spring, summer and fall and doesn’t prepare for winter while the ant works every day.  Then winter comes and the ant has tons of food and grasshopper is left out in the cold.  What was the moral of this story?  Once again, the point of the story was to point to the fact that we are to work hard and have foresight.
But allegory is not just old tales.  They show up in movies now all the time too.  [SLIDE] 1968, Planet of the Apes.  Charlton Heston is human living in an ape world.  This was a great allegory of the culture of its time.  Through the story hit discussed ideas like racism, creationism and evolution, and animal rights, anti-nuclear politics, and even McCarthyism.[1]  These were all hot button topics in the 60s, I’m sure many of you remember.
There was another breakthrough movie that was also a large allegory.  [SLIDE] The Matrix came out in 1999 and blew people away with its cool special effects and action sequences.  But this too was an allegory for some of the things that were on the fore front of our minds a decade and a half ago.  The main idea is that our contemporary experience is too much influenced by the commercialized, media-driven society in which we live in.  The whole idea in the movies is that what we see isn’t real can be seen around every day.  From the adds that tell us owning a certain car will give our lives meaning to the fact that every cover model has been so air brushed it is impossible to know what she really looks like in person.  Once again the movie pointed beyond itself and to this deeper commentary on the culture in which we are living in.
These verses in the 21st chapter of Matthew are an allegory.  It is not a parable.  Fred Craddock[2], a famous scholar and preaching professor, says a parable is a self-contained story.  Think of the parable of the lost coin.  The woman loses a coin, finds it, and then throws a party to celebrate.  This is not a story that has a social commentary.  It is a story that points us to the reality of the Kingdom of God, but it is about the world around this woman or the coins.  Craddock says that an allegory points to events outside the story.  It is actually a social commentary.
Let’s take this story a chunk at a time and see what Jesus is referring to and what is happening in his society. 
33“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower.
Yes, I know I just spent the whole sermon explaining what an allegory was and Jesus says right off, here is another parable.  But the truth is we now defined what Jesus is doing here as allegory.  As Matthew’s author was writing this he did not know there was such thing.  In this story God is represented by the landowner and the vineyard is the land of Israel.  This is a shout out to Isaiah where he does the same thing.  The tenants are the religious rulers, the servants are the Old Testament Prophets, and of course the son is Jesus.  But what else we learn is that the landowner has done a lot of the grunt work of farming.  He put the wall up, dug the winepress and put in a watchtower.  He got things ready for his tenants. 
Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
We have to remember that in allegory, not every little detail has meaning, it is still a story.  Some people might say that this is proof that God doesn’t act within our world because he is the landowner and has gone on vacation to let the humans run free.  But this is just adding to the story and give the reason why his servants will have to come back to collect.  God is not an absentee landlord.
   35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 
The tenants have not seen the landlord but all they have seen is his servants who keep coming up and demanding fruit from the vineyard.  They react in violence.  They react in a way that seems unsettling to say the least.  We read this and we pretend we are offended by it but we have seen far worse on TV and in the movies.  Let’s face it this is not the most violently disturbing thing in the Bible but it is still shakes us up.  Why would these tenants have such an adverse reaction to being asked to collect on something they promised?  They didn’t own the land yet they still refuse to give anything to the landowner.
37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
   38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
The landowner tries one last ditch effort to get what was promised to him.  He sends his son in hopes that the tenants will respect his own son.  But they treat him as well as they did the servants.  They kill him.
Then Jesus turns to the religious leaders and asks them. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus has them right where he wants them.  They answer his question but they haven’t put it together that he was talking about them.  It is the religious people that Jesus is most frustrated with.  He is mad because they don’t get it.  That is what we talked about last week and as we continue in this chapter we get the same type of idea that it is the religious people Jesus is tired of.  But how do they react.  The chapter ends with this verse,  45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.  They did not repent from their thinking, they moved forward in their desire to keep their power and control.  They did exactly what the tenants of the allegory did, they kill the landlord’s son.
Another mistake that comes out of this parable is that many think this points out that it is the Jews that are at fault for killing Jesus.  Anit-semetics point to this scripture as proof from Jesus’ mouth.  But it isn’t really true.  The Jews are at fault as the Romans and gentile.  But if we keep focused on the Jews then we can keep God from messing with us.  If we can point to THEM then we are free.  THEY are the ones who plotted to kill Jesus.  THEY are the ones who didn’t hear and understand God’s word.  THEY are the one who didn’t believe.
Yet when we set up a THEY verse WE, or US verses THEM, we lose every time.  What smacks us on the face in this parable is the notion that THEY are US.  Yes, the religious leaders of Jesus’ allegory are really us today.  Sure society has changed a little but the moral of the allegory is still the same.  Jesus is pushing the tenants of the vineyard to realize that fruits must be grown and we have to respect the landlord’s wishes and provide fruit. 
We have all been given a vineyard to work.  The world we live in is our vineyard.  My world looks different than your world and your world looks different then the person sitting next to you, even your children or spouse.  The people we know, the lives we lead, the decisions we make are all tending to that vineyard.  God has graciously provided this land, this life, to work but there is a demand that fruit be harvested.  Have we harvested any fruit?
Roger Lovette[3]wrote in a commentary I read this week, “I’ve got a retired business person who is assisting me with managing the church.  He tells me that he has never worked in a system that had as little accountability as the church.  ‘You people never take a moment to step back and ask simply ‘what have we done with what we have been given?,” he says.”  In almost any other area in life, in our jobs, in sports, in our hobbies, there is a level of accountability.  If we don’t play well out on the field, our coaches hold us up to the standard of play and ask what happened?  If we don’t fulfill the job description we were hired to do, we may not have a job any more.  Why aren’t we held accountable at church?
One of the major reasons my generation and the one after me is so frustrated with church is because of the church is too judgmental.  They don’t like preachers up behind their big stone pulpits yelling at them and telling casting judgment on who they are.  I am very aware of this and try not to be judgmental at all.  Is there a difference between judgment and accountability?
The landlord sends his servants to collect the fruit.  God looks at the lives that he has given us and sends his servants to collect the fruit.  The son has already been killed but we are still charged with the idea of being fruitful.  We look at the religious leaders of Jesus’ time and we point our fingers at them and say, “They didn’t even see God’s son in their midst.  They missed out on an opportunity to have their lives transformed.  They were too caught up in their own power, their own temple, their own lives.  They missed out.”
Lucky for us we get it.  We make room for God in our daily lives and we see the Risen Lord in our midst.  We aren’t too busy with our own lives to not be fruitful.  We produce good tasting fruit for God all the time.  We understand what it takes to follow God and we don’t get caught up in our own ideas.  We understand sarcasm.
The truth is, Jesus reaches through the pages today and grabs our hearts.  As he lays into the religious people of that day, he does so again to the religious people here.  He holds us accountable and asks us to bear fruit.  They are Us but luckily God is God.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

[2]Willimon, William H., Pulpit Resource, Vol. 36, No. 4, Year A & B, 2008 p.6.

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