Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46 “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” The well-known Parable of the Evil Tenants, as recounted to us this morning in the Gospel of Matthew, actually occurs in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; as well as in the non-canonical but nevertheless important early manuscript called the Gospel of Thomas. That the story can be found in so many biblical as well as non-biblical traditions tells us of its importance to the early Church and its understanding of our Lord’s mission and message. This might also lead us to think that, since it was so pervasive in the early Christian community, it must therefore be a pretty easy parable or narrative to interpret and understand. But alas it is not so. What to make of this Parable of ownership and stewardship, abundance and harvest, mayhem and murder, has consumed a great deal of biblical research over the centuries, most particularly perhaps in more recent decades. It is in fact among the most unusual of our Lord’s narratives or stories. Matthew for his part places it very nearly at the end of his Gospel account, and so of our Lord’s life itself, just as Jesus enters Jerusalem and the sacred temple. Challenged there by the chief priests and elders, as we heard in a recent Sunday passage, to explain the authority by which he preaches his Gospel message, our Lord responds with several exchanges and stories, of which the Parable of the Evil Tenants is one of the most powerful. A Landowner plants and tends a vineyard, builds a protective fence or wall around it, and constructs a wine-press and watchtower within its perimeters; all of which is of course reminiscent of very similar vineyard imagery found in the Prophet Isaiah. But that is where the resemblance ends. In our Lord’s telling, as related to us by Matthew, the story quickly becomes troubling not only for its improbability but for its sheer horror. The owner of the vineyard leases his property to tenant farmers and leaves town for another country, from where at harvest time, and in order to “collect his produce,” he sends
emissaries and even his own son, one after the other of whom is beaten, stoned, and killed. Including of course the son. What happens next, asks our Lord, almost rhetorically, of his listeners; and the predictable answer and unanimous verdict is that the Landowner will return and put those tenants to death and find other, presumably more reliable lessees, who “will give him the produce at the harvest time." The Chief Priests and Pharisees, hearing this and other of Jesus’ parables, somehow recognise themselves in the characterisations and then seek to arrest Jesus. And so at this point the Parable of the Evil Tenants in a sense jumps the frame of the story itself, verging all of a sudden upon allegory and none too subtle allusion and judgement. The story in other words is thus no longer about a landowner and evil tenants alone, a moral tale easy enough to grasp on its own terms despite its implausibility. It is now about real, live people within Jesus’ earshot, namely, Chief Priests and Pharisees. And perhaps more importantly, in the interpretation of many scholars, it is now about Jesus himself, the rejected Cornerstone of whom he speaks, although he never says this directly. It is about the one who has entered Jerusalem, not simply on a sort of religious holiday jaunt, but in fulfilment of prophecy and providence, mission and redemption. Much there to think about. No wonder the scholars are left scratching their heads, puzzledwhenitcometothisParableanditsinterpretation. YetifmostofourLord’sthirty or more Parables are about stewardship and its responsibilities, and they actually are, this one is surely no exception. Tenants are responsible for the care of the property entrusted to them after all. Just ask any of the several property managers in our congregation this morning. Damage or destroy your rental flat, and you will pay for it. Simple enough. And if the Chief Priests and Pharisees are emblematic of those evil tenants, it is perhaps because they kill the spirit, an act of violence in its way worse than assassination itself. But if that is true of them, the implication must also be that it can also be true of us. For, we remain tenants of the Lord’s harvest of salvation; stewards of the Kingdom. Now, our Assistant Curate, Deacon John, who is visiting our sister congregation in Ljubljana, notes in his sermon there this morning the tendency of people in groups to inevitably divide themselves between in-crowd and those on the outside; us versus them, in other words. He suggests that one important, and I would add frequently overlooked, element of this story is the passing of spiritual authority from a small coterie of temple authorities, the in-crowd of ancient Israel, to, well, anyone. Even you and me. No longer is righteousness in the eyes of God simply the result of some sort of cultic purity, of being part of the ritualistic in-crowd, it is about, as our Lord himself says, bearing the “fruits of the Kingdom.” No small task, to be sure, but one not limited to any class or caste; one open rather to anyone willing to embrace the Gospel message our Lord preaches, yes, with authority. But a task as well which leads us, as it did our Lord, to Jerusalem and the Cross. If this Parable of our Lord, with all its mystery and enigma, leaps from fable to fact, it also leaps across the centuries to us.
Violence and mayhem sadly remain a part of our world, even in Jerusalem, as we have seen these past days. What hope is there...? What cause for solace...? Surely it is Christ alone; Christ the Cornerstone, who remains the basis of our hope; the source of our solace. For, as our closing him will assure us, “Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.” Amen. The Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs