Paying the Price

(Matthew 21:33-46)

Politics. Hard to get away from it, isn’t it? Every week seems to be filled with even more disruption and chaos than the week before. And violence and injustice always seem to be right smack in the middle of it.

Jesus know about price you pay when you find yourself in this kind of politics.

You may remember that the beginning of the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, the chapter in our Gospel for today, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of the adoring crowds. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

That’s pretty heady stuff for a small town boy from the sticks. Jesus appears to be quite popular on the political scene. Matthew tells us that “when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil” (21:10).

So, you’d think that Jesus would’ve been in a better mood. Because what does he do immediately after he autographs campaign posters and kisses the requisite number of babies?

Matthew says, “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers” (21:12).

Where does that come from? It looks like Jesus has revolution on his mind, since the Temple at this point operated as a religious front for the Roman procurator, Pilate. Turning over the money changers table was a symbolic slap in the face to the Temple elite, and the political system that let them thrive.

Then, if raining on the Temple’s Bingo night wasn’t bad enough, the first thing the next morning, being hungry, Jesus sees a fig tree. He’s going to get a little something to tide him over until breakfast. But alas, he’s found the Charlie Brown fig tree—all spindly and fruitless.

In what looks like a fit of pique, Jesus curses the tree, confounding the disciples. “What’s his problem? We thought things were going pretty well. If yesterday’s any indication, it looks like we’re trending upward in the key battleground states. Jesus, you ought to be happy. Why so cranky?”

So, Jesus goes to the temple a second time. You can imagine the disciples shooting each other anxious looks. “We just did this. And if memory serves, we didn’t make any friends.”

And they’re right. The leaders of the temple, a bit annoyed with yesterday’s little outburst, ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23). He refuses to tell them what they ask, but he does agree to tell them some parables.

Our passage for this morning is the second of these parables—listed among the parables of judgment. Having witnessed Jesus’ mood, we’re not at all surprised at them being classified as parables of judgment.

But why the sudden change of mood—from triumph on Sunday to judgment on Monday?

I suspect it has something to do with Jesus’ political instincts. While everybody in his entourage sees only palm branches and victory parades, Jesus knows by their reaction that they’ve misunderstood what his ministry is all about. They see inaugural galas, but he sees controversy and plummeting polling data.


Because Jesus seems to be the only one aware of the fact that he’s not running an election campaign. He knows that his job is telling the truth—and we all know how hard it is to get anywhere in politics if you happen to be overly attached to the truth.

No, he’s got a tough job in front of him—and he seems to be the only one who realizes it. He alone seems aware of how much his messiahship is ultimately going to cost.

Which brings us to our Gospel for today. Jesus tells a story about a man who planted a vineyard. Now, this wasn’t just any vineyard. The owner put a fence around it, contracted with ADT to monitor it against the riffraff—put in a new high-tech winepress, and a guard gate at the front entrance with motion detectors and retinal scanners.

But the owner’s an entrepreneur. He’s not in it to make wine; he’s going to lease the place—which he does to some folks whose credit scores come back in the high 700s. Then the owner takes a little vacation to Florence to visit the museums.

So far we’ve got tenants and an owner. We get sense that the owner represents God. But what about the tenants? Who are they supposed to be?

The clue is found in the opening words of the passage: “Listen to another parable . . . ” This means, of course, that Jesus is adding onto a parable he’s just told—the parable from last week, the parable of the two brothers who’re asked by their father to tend to another vineyard. One says he’ll go but doesn’t, and the other says he won’t, but eventually does go to work in the vineyard.

Jesus takes aim in parable of the two brothers . . . at the Temple bigwigs—the guys who’re still ticked at Jesus for the whole money-changer table fiasco from the day before. After telling the first parable, Jesus says, “Listen to another parable . . . ”

So, we know that our parable this morning, another parable about a vineyard, is also aimed at the Temple power brokers.

After the harvest comes, the owner sends the accountants to pick up the rent, and the accountants get thumped by those shifty tenants. Initially, it’s kind of hard to get worked up over the owner’s loss. He probably had it coming, after all—a little populist ire comes pretty easily under the circumstances, doesn’t it?

So, the owner sends more accountants to collect the rent. They meet with the same inhospitality. What’s the owner going to do?

We’re familiar with how this story is supposed to go, aren’t we? This is where the owner’s supposed to ride in with the sheriff and a big fat eviction notice. You can’t let people avoid paying rent. You can’t just let folks renegotiate their mortgages. People have to start taking personal responsibility; otherwise, everybody’s going to start trying to stiff the landlord.

We know the narrative arc. You’ve got to come down hard on these deadbeats, or the whole economic system will implode. So send in the leg-breakers.

But here’s where Jesus zigs when we’re sure he should’ve zagged. Instead of sending in the muscle, the owner sends his son to collect.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this move sounds to me like that scene in virtually every horror movie, where the power goes out at the house and the babysitter says, “I wonder what happened? I guess I should go down in the cellar and take a look.”

You can hear the collective groan, “No. Don’t do it.” But the landowner sends his son anyway.

Guess what happens?

The tenants who’ve been given the responsibility of tending the vineyard have turned into Bonnie and Clyde, and the vineyard is now the Bates Motel. Junior gets offed.

Who saw that coming?

But the owner’s logic doesn’t make any sense. Why send the boy?

We’ve seen the character of these tenants. We know what they’re like.

How can the owner not know? With all that violent history, why doesn’t the owner do what everybody knows he’s should do and just send in the leg-breakers? If I were in charge, they wouldn’t get away with it. I’d make them pay.

Human nature. You’ve got to protect what’s yours, or someone will take it from you. Make a statement. Let them know you’re not someone to mess with.

In politics, the fashion seems to be finding candidates who are like us. We vote for people we’d like to have a beer with—is how the conventional wisdom goes. As long as a candidate talks like us, gets mad at the same kinds of things that make us mad—then, we figure, they’ll make good candidates for governing.

But in this story, the owner’s not like me. And it’s not just that he’s powerful. What makes the owner so different is that he refuses to use his power violently, vindictively. This owner keeps sending servants into the vineyard, when good sense suggests sending in the cavalry.

Monsignor Oscar Romero was one of the servants. He lived in El Salvador and tried to get the church to act like followers of Jesus in the face of corrupt leaders. His life was continuously threatened. But he refused to leave the country.

“My place is with my people,” he said. The tenants of the vineyard caught up to him, though. One night as he was saying Mass in 1980, they walked through the doors of the church and shot him as he stood over the altar, preparing to break the bread of life. Oscar Romero died in the vineyard.

I know about five more servants sent to the vineyard to demand justice of the wicked tenants. Five Jesuit priests in the Theological Reflection Center in El Salvador were pulled from their beds in the middle of the night in 1989. They were considered agitators against the military dictatorship, which happened—we should point out—to have been supported by the U.S. Government. The Jesuits claimed that they were just priests, trying to do the work to which Christ had called them. They were taken outside the seminary and shot by those given the responsibility of watching over the vineyard. Five Jesuits died in the vineyard.

A few years back there was a vigil service to recall the names of all the Jesuits who’d been murdered in El Salvador. The names were read, just like we read names on All Saints; but these names were of people who had been murdered there: missionaries, church workers, priests, just ordinary people trying to live like Jesus asked them to live.

They had to stop reading after a while, the list was so long . . . 60,000 names long. 60,000 names. And that’s just a drop in the bucket. That’s just one country, one vineyard. El Salvador—literally, The Savior. Those servants all died in the vineyard.

Today we gather together to remember the name of one more murdered servant; this time we remember the son. Jesus died in the vineyard, at the hands of another set of wicked tenants.

Earlier Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt 11:12).

Violence, sadly, has always been a part of the vineyard. The owner looks so weak and powerless; the tenants are thieves and goons; the messengers are beaten or murdered. This parable ends with the fate of the vineyard unresolved. The owner is still alive, yes, but so are the violent tenants. How will this story end?

Jesus heads into the vineyard to cheers of “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But he can read the political tea leaves. He’s got a pretty good idea where this story is headed.

So, it should be no great surprise to learn that Jesus is a little testy—even in the face of the palm branches. He knows which way the political wind is blowing—but he walks into the vineyard anyway.

The parable ends. The fate of the vineyard is yet unresolved. But we know that already, don’t we? Two thousand years in, and we’ve seen too much injustice to believe the vineyard has changed much.

The killings continue. Servants are still sent to the vineyard. And these servants still cry out against the violent and the unjust caretakers. There are still servants around who proclaim that God isn’t ok with the ways the people in power continue to look out for their own interests ahead of the well-being of the vineyard.

Because here’s the thing: people are still being neglected in the vineyard at the hands of those in charge, those who’ve been entrusted to protect the vulnerable and the powerless, to care for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the stranger, to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted, and to make certain that no one takes advantage of those who’re always the targets of wicked: children, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and those on the margins.

But, according to the story, the owner is unwilling to let the vineyard go, unwilling to turn a blind eye to the distress of ordinary people.

We know that great suffering has always been involved. And with the final act of killing the son, we know the high cost of doing business in this vineyard.

But that’s not all we know, we know, even more than the high cost of doing business in the vineyard . . . that the owner is willing to pay the price.

And the question that puts to us is: Are we?