Red Letter Year: 5/14

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. 34 At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. 35 But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same. 37 Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ 39 So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him. 40 When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”

41 The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”

42 Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures? ‘The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.’ 43 I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. 44 Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

45 When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them— they were the wicked farmers. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet.

Comments

This parable appears in Mark (12.1-12) and Luke (20.9-18) as well but Matthew’s account is unique in one feature. He has the religious leaders answer Jesus’ question about what the landowner will do, while Mark and Luke have Jesus answer his own question. The answer is the same in all three, the only difference is who is speaking. This is interesting because the answer represents what we might expect the landowner to do more than what he actually does (note how Jesus asks the question). The landowner represents the Father, the servants he sends represent Israel’s prophets,  the son represents Jesus, and the tenet farmers represent Israel’s religious leaders. They have mistreated the prophets just as described here and they are about to kill the son, but as the son hangs dying, he does the opposite of what this parable suggests: he asks the Father to forgive those killing him. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Paul of Tarsus show us that grace extends even to Israel’s religious leaders, even to the wicked tenet farmers. The Father doesn’t reject anyone who doesn’t reject Jesus, no matter what. 

Which is good news because the point of this parable is not for us to read it and think, ‘wow, glad I’m not a Pharisee.’ As we read through the Gospels we continually encounter dumb disciples and self-pious religious leaders. We can tend to think that we are somehow removed from both of these groups, that we stand apart from them and their problems, that we understand Jesus in a way they don’t. But this is never as true as we think and even less so if we remain blind to the fact that their problems are our problems. We are the dumb disciples. We are the pious religious leaders. We are the wicked tenets who have trouble remembering that the work we do (all the work we do) is for God first and not for ourselves first. But Jesus dies even for those who kill him and he is raised from the dead even for those who put the stone in front of the tomb. We can confront our own sinful condition (our dumbness and self-piety) head-on because it is already covered by God’s infinite, unlimited grace.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Red Letter Year: 5/13

Matthew 21:18-32

18 In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, 19 and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up.

20 The disciples were amazed when they saw this and asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”

21 Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. 22 You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

23 When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and elders came up to him. They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?”

24 “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. 25 “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”

They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. 26 But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.” 27 So they finally replied, “We don’t know.”

And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things. 28 But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32 For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.”

Comments

Notice the progression of this passage. Jesus begins by doing something amazing (making the fig tree wither)  and then uses that to encourage his followers that they too can do amazing things like throw mountains into the sea. Next, the religious leaders demand to know what makes Jesus think he has the right to take over the Temple.  They were still incensed by the scene Jesus caused in the Temple the day before, disrupting normal business and filling the place with the blind and lame (who then did a lot of looking and dancing) and children running around singing. Jesus offers to answer if they can prove their question is a serious one, but it is not. Their question is only a veiled way of saying, ‘you can’t do that.’ Finally, Jesus turns the discussion away from what someone can or cannot do toward what one actually does with instructions given to them. In his parable, both sons were capable of doing the work, both were qualified and authorized, but only one chose to do the work.

I think the message for us is pretty clear. Jesus is telling us we can do a lot more than we think we can, while the religious forms we cling to assure us that we can’t even do the things that are on our hearts to do. Jesus empowers and authorizes. Religion disempowers and unauthorizes. The real answer Jesus would have given, the only possible answer for him to give, is that the authority rests in himself. He can’t appeal to anything beyond himself because there isn’t anything beyond himself. There is no law, rule, or principle more determinative than Jesus himself. Anything that tries to be so is an idol, a religious form that disempowers us. Jesus has already given us all the authority we need, all the authority he can give, in giving himself to us.

You already have all the authority, permission, and empowerment that you need. You don’t have to answer the question ‘what gives you the right’ anymore than Jesus did. He died and rose again so you don’t have to answer that question. You should surround yourself with friends who can help you discern what your work in the vineyard looks like, what ‘go’ means for you specifically. Those friends should begin with the assumption that you can throw mountains into the sea, not by grilling you for letting children sing. Stop waiting for permission and go ahead and do what the Father has already told you to do.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.