Are We Unworthy Tenants?

from Rev Chris Cohen - October 2008


Dear Friends,

The writer Matthew has given us two parables about vineyards and obedience.  Note the context.  Jesus has ridden into the city for the last time on a donkey.  He cleansed the temple.  He had told the story of the fig tree that bore no fruit.  He encountered the religious officials that were absolutely furious at his actions.  All these events are followed by the two parables.

Matthew 1:33 – 46 looked back to Isaiah 5:1-7.  In that pre exile setting Israel was clearly seen as the tenant.  The vineyard belongs to God.  The hard times reflected a country on the edge of exile in destruction.  God’s people were expected to produce grapes and only wild grapes grew there.  The vineyard was poorly tended – neither pruned nor hoed.  It was overgrown and covered with briers and thorns (5:6).

Scholars call today’s text an allegory.  Fred Craddock delineates the difference between parable and allegory.  A parable, he says, is a self-contained story.  An allegory points to events and actions outside the story.

What actions and what events take place here?  Jesus’ primary audience was scribes, chief priests, and elders.  At the end of the chapter he would add Pharisees to this list.  The tenants failed to tend the vineyard and the chief priests and Pharisees got the point.  Jesus was talking about them (21:45).  Prophet after prophet was ignored.  Then when the owner sent his son, he too was rejected and finally killed by the tenants.

We must not make the mistake so many have made throughout church history.  The intent of this story is not to accuse or bash Judaism and its leaders.  Matthew had a larger purpose.

Holding up the mirror of disobedience and rebellion the church, then and now, must ask a painful question about the unworthy tenants: “Lord, is it I?”

Your friend Chris.