18 Pentecost • October 4, 2020
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 • Psalm 19, 37-45 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • Matthew 21:33-46
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This parable, called the “Parable of the Wicked Farmers,” is very problematic for the scholars. For example, in this form as Matthew presents it, it is an “allegory,” not a parable. In an allegory, each character stands for some particular thing or person—the owner of the vineyard is God, the workers in the vineyard are the people of the Jewish nation, the representatives of the owner who were treated badly were the prophets, and the son and heir is Jesus himself.
But Jesus rarely, if ever, used allegories. They were a popular teaching tool in the First Century, but not one Jesus normally used. His parables made one central point, telling in a short phrase or even a story, one abstract message.
You probably are aware that Matthew had a copy of the Gospel of Mark in front of him when he wrote his own version of Jesus’ ministry. Luke also quotes Mark. So Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and is the source for much that Matthew and Luke were able to relate. This story of the Wicked Farmers is now found in all three Gospels.
In Mark and Luke, as it turns out, this story is a parable, not an allegory. It has a single point, one that engages one’s curiosity as to what Jesus means to convey. In this morning’s telling from Matthew, however, it is turned into an allegory. So the chances are that Matthew is embroidering quite a bit.
A second problem is this: In this allegory Jesus identifies himself as the Son of God—something Jesus never did. The Early Church, including Matthew who gave us this version, did call Jesus the Son of God. But Jesus? Speaking about himself? Never. To make such a claim for oneself would qualify one for the looney-bin, or brand one as a charlatan; I am told that insane asylums contain many self-proclaimed Messiahs!
The point in the other version of Mark and Luke is this: The hardness of heart of the established leadership, by refusing to listen to the prophets (and Jesus certainly considered himself a prophet)—such hardness of heart condemns them to live outside the kingdom of God.
What is being rejected is not so much Jesus, but what Jesus came to proclaim. They were rejecting the Word of God and thereby were denying themselves the kingdom.
We are enabled to enter the Kingdom of God by our willingness to listen newly, by opening ourselves to uncomfortable truths, by forgiving others as God has forgiven us, by feeding and clothing the poor, and the like.
Should we reject Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Wicked Farmers? I think not, even though it probably does not reflect Jesus’ teaching accurately. What it does give us is an insight into the faith and teaching of the Early Church. Jesus’ disciples certainly did see him as the Son of God, worthy of worship and example to be followed.
We promised, when we were baptized, to “follow and obey” Jesus as our Lord. Following Jesus means different things to different people, for each of us hears that promise differently. What matters is the intention to follow and obey, and then to actively search out what is the appropriate way for us to fulfill the promise.
What is appropriate to a twenty-year-old will not be the same as a sixty-year-old. What following Jesus means for a working person will not be the same as what it means for a retired person. So it take continual discernment, continual listening to the Word, continual openness to hear what each of our missions in life might be at any particular stage in our lives.
In this, Jesus promises to be with us unto the end of the earth, certainly the end of our earthly life. For we have taken him on as our Lord, our Leader, and our Savior.