Who are the Wicked Tenants, Lent 5C 2004
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Who are the Wicked Tenants?
Lent 5C 2004 Luke 20:9-19
Note: The website program does not support many punctuation marks and they have been automatically removed.
Well, here we are at the tail end of the Lenten season. Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and next Sunday will be Palm
Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week. Easter and Spring seem to be arriving simultaneously this year, at least if the weather
of the last several days holds true.
In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus has already reached Jerusalem and entered it. We will celebrate the Triumphal Entry
on Palm Sunday. So we are a little out of sequence for Saint Lukes Gospel. But that is the physical context of this parable
familiarly known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.
Jesus has begun the last phase of his earthly ministry and his teaching and preaching has become stronger, tougher, sharper,
more hard-edged. So have his actions. Just before telling this parable, Jesus has taken a lash of cords and whipped the moneychangers
out of the Temple. This did not win him any supporters among the Temple priests and scribes. The High Priest, Caiaphas, has
become especially incensed that this upstart common carpenter, of no family connections and power, has assumed the authority
to do this. These powerful members of the Temple cult see what Jesus did not as a cleansing of the Temple, as the Gospel writers
understood it and wrote it down, but as a direct threat to them and to their authority and prestige. They particularly see
it as a threat to the civil, social, and religious order of things and it is on this basis that they will soon bring Jesus
before the Roman authorities and see that he is punished in the Roman way as such a threat. Jesus will die on the Cross.
It has become a tense time in Jerusalem. Jesus is very well aware of the feeling against him in the Temple hierarchy and
among the Temple authorities. He is very aware that they will be one of the penultimate causes of his painful, gory, miserable,
and shameful death. And so he tells the parable of the wicked tenants. These same Temple authorities understand that Jesus
is telling this parable against them and they are angry and begin to plan their move against them.
Jesus was also speaking to another audience: the ordinary people. They would have been familiar with the physical and
economic contexts of the parable. Judea in this time was beset by economic trouble and labor unrest. There were many absentee
landlords who rented out their land to tenant farmers in this way. Rents were seldom collected in money, which was in short
supply everywhere, but in kind a stated and fixed portion of the potential harvest, no matter how well the harvest met or
failed to meet those forecast expectations. Or there would be a fixed and stated percentage of the actual harvest.
The Gospel writers and the Church since then have traditionally understood this parable as an allegory. What is an allegory?
The word is derived from the Greek term allegoria, meaning the description of one thing under the image of another. An allegory
is a story in which people, things, and happenings have another meaning and is used to teach or explain by means of symbolic
representation, narration or description. And just a reminder that parables were not intended by either Jesus or the Gospel
writers to be taken literally.
The traditional symbolic interpretation of this parable is this: The owner of the vineyard is the symbol representing
God the Father. The vineyard is a symbol of the Creation and Gods heavy investment of time, work, care, patience, and love,
with the anticipation of a fruitful return. The vineyard had been in the hands of these tenants for a long time, probably
symbolic of the salvation history of Israel prior to Jesus.
The tenants are symbolic of the authorities both civil and religious. These tenants manage the vineyard in their own interest
and not Gods. When Jesus whipped the moneychangers out of the Temple he gave notice that there would be an end to this notion.
The tenants have forgotten that they were intended to be stewards and servants of the Lord, doing Gods work faithfully in
the vineyard, in the Creation. Instead they are seized with the notion that they can take over the vineyard exclusively for
their own purposes and profit, even if they must maim and murder to do it.
The three servants sent to collect the owners share of the vintage are symbolic of the prophets, including John the Baptist,
who were persecuted, disregarded, and some of whom were even killed by the corrupt leaders of their time for their stern warnings
to ancient Israel.
The beloved son is of course Jesus himself. Jesus will be taken to the slaughter by these tenants, these religious and
civil authorities. But that will not be the end of the story. Jesus warns them that there will be a serious consequence to
their actions if they persist in their mistaken and misguided notion of killing him and trying to own the vineyard exclusively
for themselves. (1) God will give the Word, the Good News to another people, a new Israel, a new creation that Christians
have traditionally considered foretold by the prophet Isaiah: Thus says the Lord,
Do not remember the former things, or consider things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you
not perceive it?
That is the Tradition. And it speaks to us with power across the centuries.
But consider this possibility: How would many people of today perceive this parable? Would the same allegorical symbols
have quite so powerful a meaning?
On the farm of my youth, tenant farming was a way of life. There was a row of tenant houses on the dirt road that wound
its way through the fields behind the farmhouse. At the end of it were the houses. Black and white farmers and their families
lived in them peaceably with each other, each depending on the other to help. Every winter the bargain was struck with my
father. Free provision of the house always entered into it. I dont remember who paid the light bill. The water was from the
well, a bucket at a time.
Sharecropping was generally the basis of the contract agreement. There were generally disputes and a relationship with
the owner of the farm rarely lasted more than several years before a tenant family would pack up their meager furniture and
head out to another farm. My father, the owner of the land the vineyard so to speak could hardly be allegorized as a loving
God. And he himself always saw to the division of what profits there were. There was often disagreement over the shares and
occasionally some minor violence rocks thrown at him as he came to ask a family to move on so he could install a new set after
a disagreement. And who knows who had the truth of the matter. The real truth was that he owned the land and could enforce
his will. He had the power. I wonder if those tenant farmer families understood the Parable of the Wicked Tenants the traditional
And take today in many parts of the world, where people are eking out a miserable survival barely existence. In the Congo
just this week was a report on the Internet on MSN of pygmies forced off their land by deforestation lumbering which denuded
not only the forests but chased the game animals away. You would think that people so poor and destitute would not be subjected
to demands for money collection of any sort. But the worst thing is that gangs of rebel soldiers come to collect money tribute.
And where there is none they kill and eat family members. The article is entitled, On the Trail of the Cannibal Rebels.
One pygmy named Amazuti saw his mother and several siblings slaughtered and cut up like animals for eating. Another report
was of the human meat being salted before cooking. Amazuti is a recent convert to Christianity and is awaiting his baptism.
I wonder how he would read the parable of the wicked tenants when he hears it for the first time. The ever-ineffective United
Nations raised its hands in horror and sent five thousand soldiers. The nearest ones are one hundred miles away. They might
as well have stayed home. (2)
The list of horrors in the world goes on and on. We are the tenants in the vineyard in our time. We are its stewards.
How good at it have we been?
1. allegory in Websters New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition; Fred B. Craddock, Luke, John Knox
Press, 1990, pp 233-234; William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, revised edition, Westminster Press, 1975, pp 245-247; Synthesis,
28 March 2004.