I’ve heard it said countless times that everything you need to know about workplace or a school comes when you see who sits with whom at what lunch table.
And it’s true. When you think about it, whom we dine with or choose not to dine with—is often one of the biggest indicators of our values, our likes and what matters to us the most.
There’s one thing I know for sure: in some way, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed at a table or not.
In the gospel lection from Sunday, we found a parable told by Jesus about a group of people who were trying to find their place at the table too.
It’s a story with an intense name: “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” (A great text to preach on near Halloween, wouldn’t you say?)
It’s a story that has created a lot of confusion over the centuries because of the anti-Semitism found in popular interpretations of its meaning.
But, it’s a story I believe that has a lot to teach us about the kingdom of God and who is sitting among us as when we come to the Lord’s Table.
The audience gathered around Matthew when we reach chapter 21 of his gospel are the high-class religious leaders of the day, those with the most influence in society. They’d recently seen Jesus turning over the money changing tables in the temple courts. They’d heard Jesus say with clear authority: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
For Jesus, there was no time to waste on this Jesus’ last week of life.
Again, he needed to teach. So Jesus told another convicting parable. Saying:
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press it in. He left the country, and told the tenants of the land that they were in charge. When the harvest time came, the landowner sent his salves back to collect his produce.
But then things got real. It was like a mob take-over of the vineyard! There was no way the landowner was going to get his property back.
For when the slaves arrive to collect the harvest, they’re first are beaten, stoned and one is even killed.
In response, the landowner then sends another delegation of slaves to collect his produce and again, the representatives of the master are beaten, stoned and some killed.
When none of this worked, the landowner sent his son. (Crazy choice don’t you think?)
But again, Jesus says the tenants are angry. They show no respect for the son either. They take matters into their own hands to protect what they think is theirs. The landowner’s son is soon killed too.
And it is at this point that the parable abruptly ends. The text transitions our attention back to the crowd gathered around Jesus.
In verse 40, Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do those tenants?”
This question is Jesus’ way of saying, ok, let’s slow down and think a minute.
The religious pompous, though, were quick to answer, saying in verse 41 about the landowner: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Or in other words—those crazy tenants, Jesus—please tell us that that they are going to get what they deserve! Please tell us that they’re going to die too.
What comes next is Jesus not affirming or even acknowledging what they say—rather drawing attention back to the scriptures and the using metaphors describing the kingdom of God.
And while some preachers and teachers might then proceed with the rest of the sermon giving you a lecture on Matthew’s take on Jewish/ Christian relations and what came of the Christian movement after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD—and how possibly Jesus was telling this parable to condemn the religious leaders of the day for what was to come after his death . . . .
I am not going to go there.
Instead, in light of the commentary of Professor David Lose, I want to help you think of the parable in this way:
What if we lay aside what the landlord might do in this parable and instead focus on what the landlord actually did?
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. And I agree with David Lose when he says that this is one such occasion.
It’s the question, I believe, that leads us I believe to gospel. So what did the landlord do?
Though we could easily get caught up in the use of the word “slaves” and the willing sacrifice of life (such as why did the landlord willing hand over his slaves and his sons for torture and slaughter?), if we read this passage allegorically, gems of the landlord’s character begin to shine through.
Gems like determination, persistence and unconditional love.
For, there was nothing that the landlord would not sacrifice on behalf of staying in relationship with the tenants on his land.
Nothing. He gave it all.
Even his own beloved son!
And the same was true of Jesus is what He was trying to convey.
In modern terms Jesus’ message would go something like this:
Listen, crowds, I am about to give my life, own very life so that you can live abundantly too. I am about to show you how determined I am in my mission. Nothing, no nothing is going to separate me from you if you only open yourself up to receive me.
And in giving my life, I’m creating a new kind of kingdom.
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter who deserved what: rich or poor!
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter what your position is: slave or free!
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter where your faith story began: Jew or Gentile!
This is all you need to know about my kingdom. I’m going to be the cornerstone on which it is all built.
It is as if this parable is leading us to SEE what God's table might look like.
For there’s room at God’s table for brothers and sisters who have been eating at the table their whole life who are superstars of Sunday School. And there’s room for those who have not.
There is room at God’s table for those who follow scriptures to the degree of the law and have their daily devotions every day. And there’s room for those who are not.
There is room at the table of God for those who are from the United States with citizenship. And there’s for those who do not.
The question in becomes when is the last time our churches, our communion suppers and our dinner tables were full of people that lived into Jesus' words about what God's table is all about?