[I gave this at Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on October 4, 2020. The parable mentioned in the title is in Matthew 21:33-46, accompanied in the message by Philippians 3:4b-14. This can also be found in video form on the Community of the Savior YouTube or Facebook channel.]
I don’t like this parable. Do you have a favorite parable of Jesus? I bet it isn’t this one. Perhaps it is the Good Samaritan. I love that one. Or the waiting father with the runaway younger son—the Prodigal. I love that one. Or that pithy one about finding the pearl of great price. I love that one. But not this one. It’s like watching a Martin Scorsese movie: we know that whatever the story line, some unnecessary violent bloodshed is likely coming. It comes quickly in this parable.
A landowner has a big crop of grapes ready for picking. He has tenants working for him. He sends in three servants to do this hard work. The tenants seize them, beating one, stoning another, and killing the third one. The landowner sends in another group. The same thing happens. The landowner sends in his son, thinking surely his son will be treated better. His son is also killed. Jesus is telling this in Jerusalem as Passover is approaching: it is holy week. The city is filled with religious leaders and pious people. Jesus asks the religious leaders, “What will the landowner do those merciless tenants?” The answer is obvious: “Kill those wretched tenants.” Then Jesus deftly quotes from Psalm 118: “Haven’t you read in the Bible: ‘The stone which the craftsmen rejected was selected as the cornerstone?’” It’s a gotcha moment.
In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson identifies the targeted hearers this way:
“God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them.”
In “The Cotton Patch” version of Matthew (a fresh take on the Gospel by Clarence Jordan, setting it in 20th century rural Georgia), the parable ends this way:
“The God Movement will be taken out of your hands and turned over to people who will be productive. . . . The ministers and church people listened to his Comparison, and were aware that it was aimed at them.”
What would you see as the most dangerous occupation in the New Testament? I have my choice and I think I’m right. It is an occupation with which I am well acquainted. Does that give you a clue? Yes, I think the most dangerous occupation, the one most to be avoided, is religious leader. The New Testament sees being a religious leader as dangerous. Ouch! Jesus had the hardest time with the religious leaders, or perhaps more accurately, the religious leaders had the hardest time with Jesus, who wouldn’t fit into their neat religious categories.
Saul of Tarsus was a religious leader. His credentials were impeccable. His sash was filled with merit badges. His pedigree was impressive—he was best in show. He lists seven items: circumcised on the right day, an Israeli citizen, born in the elite tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew to the core, a Pharisee keeping the whole law, so zealous for his religion that he persecuted followers of Jesus, and flawless in attaining righteousness through keeping the law. His bottom line? If anyone could earn God’s favor, it was he. Yahweh had to be thrilled to have Saul on his team.
And then—boom! —everything changes. The risen Jesus reveals himself to Saul, and old Saul’s transformation is so radical, so thorough, that his name has to change too. Old law-keeping goody, goody Saul becomes captured-by-the-grace-of-Jesus Paul. He is saved, redeemed, and transformed—not by meticulous law-keeping, which he had worked so hard to do, but by the amazing grace of Jesus that found him, which he could never earn or merit.
This new-found freedom means that Paul enters a journey of letting go of what he once held so tightly and pressing on toward living in this incredible grace found in Jesus. Paul will take all that he once valued: all his merit badges, all his Sunday school perfect attendance pins, all his Bible memorization certificates, all that he once used to prove to himself and others that God was pleased with him, and trash them. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . . .” “The Message” lets Paul’s words be more earthy: “The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash. . . . All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”
That word translated “rubbish” in the NRSV is more accurately the “dog dung” of “The Message.” I don’t like to use Greek words in preaching, but here I make an exception. The word is “skubala” and it literally means—what you probably are thinking it means. Refuse, dung, dog dodo, excrement. Sometimes we experience or observe things that hurt or bother us deeply, so much so that we are prone to use more colorful language than we usually use. Earthly, salty language. Here is such a word found right in the New Testament: “skubala.” I think that gives us permission to use it, but, please, only at appropriate times and ways. Did Jesus ever use salty language? Yes. Read Matthew 23: “hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs.” Again, I find “The Message” effective at getting Jesus’ colorful language:
“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, . . . six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” The whole of Matthew 23 is Jesus speaking to the religious leaders of the day. The bishops and presbyters. The clergy. The right reverend doctors, with their flowing garments, stiff necks, and cold hearts.
A New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, wrote a magisterial book on Paul’s life journey. He entitled it: “Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.” My story is not as dramatic as Paul’s, but it is similar. I was raised in this faith, knowing about Jesus from my mother’s knee. And never have I strayed far from it. I worked hard at pleasing God and was somewhat successful in the eyes of others. I was a good kid, faithful in Sunday school and worship. I memorized enough Bible verses to go to summer camp free. I have been a religious leader for most of my adult life. And that is dangerous. Religious leaders can be enemies of God’s grace, territorial tenants like those in that terrible parable. I have increasing sympathy with people that find Jesus more attractive but the Church less unattractive, as it too often communicates judgmentalism and harsh legalism, as it looks down at the kind of people Jesus loves to be with. As religion is popularly understood, I don’t want to be religious. Because I love the Lord, I love his Church, even though I am often offended and embarrassed by church leaders and religious people. I want my love for Jesus to grow, and I want the Church to work at being more like him. I want to be more like Jesus, who is ever reaching out to the unlovely, touching the untouchables, caring for the most needy. I have so far to go.
With Paul, I want to leave behind and forget anything that leads me to think I have earned God’s favor—all that skubala—and exchange all that religious stuff with the grace of God in Christ that has found me and set my heart free.
“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”