Holy Tuesday Reflection: Evil Tenants, Absent Guests and People Who Are Pretty Much You!

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Over the course of my lifetime I have become increasingly wary around war metaphors when it comes to theology.  I grew up singing, “I’m in the Lord’s Army” complete with hand motions and now my daughter sings it as well.  But I also grew up in the post 9/11 era, watching everybody from terrorists to politicians use religious metaphors to describe their desired war efforts.  I am often not sure if they are using religion to promote war or war to promote religion but I definitely know both make me super uncomfortable.

However, when you react against something you often embrace all the errors of the opposite.  So in reacting against a God of War many of us have found ourselves over embracing a God of passiveness, a God who is unaffiliated with our world, unfamiliar with the true evils that lurk among us and who wants to just go around handing out Pepsi’s to riot police and protesters without acknowledging the deep evils that lie under our world.

In such a view, we remake Jesus into a kindhearted, compassionate do gooder.  He never raised his voice and never said anything remotely offensive.  And of course they crucified him for no apparent reason.

In reading Matthew this week, I have come again to realize Jesus was nothing of the sort.  There was a true conflict going on between Jesus and the authorities and he stoked their ire quite deliberately.  They were perpetuating grave evils and he did not mince words while calling them out.

The parable I wrote about yesterday was just the warm up act.  Jesus follows it with two more stories which are more cruel and far more deliberate in their attempts to stoke their anger. (See Matthew 21:28-22:10)

The first, sometimes called “the Parable of the Tenants” has to do with a landlord trying to collect rent from his tenants.  The tenants want nothing of it, beating and killing every money collector sent.  The story climaxes when the landlord sends his son who is then also killed.  These tenants are not just evil but also stupid.  Killing the servants is not going to guarantee the landlord will stop trying.  Killing the son is not going to guarantee them the inheritance.  In fact, the Chief Priests correctly use the word “wretched” to describe them.

But then Jesus turns that on them.  “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produces its fruit!”  It is almost like he was saying:  You are evil and stupid and wretched!

The second parable, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, makes a similar point.  A King throws a wedding banquet and all the honored and invited guests refuse to show up.  So the King ends up letting everybody come.

These parables are not quite “war” stories or metaphors and yet words of violence saturate them.  There are beatings and mockings and killings.  There is gnashing of teeth and people being captured and tied up.  These are hardly stories describing a passive, almost apathetic God.  This God cares about the fruit and the land that produces it.  This God cares about people.  This God cares about the servants.  This God cares about the rejected.  And this God is angry at those who do not care, especially when they are the Chief Priests who wear God’s name and claim to act in God’s best interests.

Yet notice how God deals with the situation?  Yes, he ousts the tenants but then he gives the farm to others.  And when the guests of the bridegroom refuse to show, God goes out and invites others in.  Both these parables end the conflict with inclusiveness.  People are welcomed who were earlier rejected.

Both these parables point to the cross, that moment when Jesus is completely rejected by the religious establishment but then God throws open wide arms of mercy to invite all sinners in.  God wins the conflict not by conquering or by killing but by inviting.  Those the chief priests and elders rejected become the children of the King!  God’s wonderful kingdom gets bigger.

Yes there is a conflict.  Yes God is at war with the corrupt and the uncaring.  But God wins the war by throwing open the doors of the kingdom to everybody who will believe and repent.  So too, the church wins our various conflicts when we take up our crosses, throw open our arms  and open our doors to the tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, the greedy, the manipulative, the battered, the poor and the broken.  Only in so doing will the reign of love increase!

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Prostitutes, Tax Collectors and People Who Are Pretty Much Not You

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I don’t know about you but I grew up learning a lot about Jesus’ parables.  I think we all did.  If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, surely every Evangelical 6th grader is an expert on Jesus’ parables.

I was taught these are the fun little children’s stories that came straight from Jesus’ mouth.  They are clever extended metaphors with cute little object lessons that aid dumb people in understanding who God is.  It is still not uncommon for me to read a book that suggests my teaching and preaching should follow the same path.  In so many words these chapters plead for me to be a good Christian teacher who uses silly stories and illustrations for my poor and super dumb pew sitters.  Only by teaching like Jesus did, can my ministry be effective and prosperous.  I wrote a satire piece on this awhile back but let’s just say if your ministry is going to be effective and prosperous doing things the way Jesus did them is not going to help!  After all, the guy was crucified.

I also hope it goes without saying that the gospels do not corroborate this view of the parables.

Instead, Jesus’ parables are deeply offensive and profoundly critical of the religious elites.  He couched his severe criticism in silly stories so that they would dismiss him as harmless.  Then, when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (See Mark 4:34).  He probably hid his criticism in this way so that they wouldn’t crucify him until his time had come.

Nowhere is this dark side of the parables more evident than in the ones from Holy Week in Matthew 21-25.  During Holy Week Jesus’ parables are more abrupt and less clever.  The attacks become obvious.  The veneer drops off and everyone who hears them know that these parables have a target.  As such, the authorities begin to catch wise that this Jesus guy is not harmless at all.  He is exposing them for the corrupt hypocrites they are.

The first one, in Matthew 21:28-32, is sometimes called “The Parable of the Two Sons.” It goes like this: 

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.  Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

It is not so much a story as a question and when the Chief Priests answer, “The first one” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Let me interpret that for you, “Yep the first one is better than the second and you the second!  But the people you consider evil are actually the first!”

Sometimes I do think it is no wonder that they crucified him.  After all they put in huge effort to looking and sounding pretty in order to convince people, or maybe just themselves, that they were doing God’s will.  After all, most religious types will tell you God likes pretty people, especially if they’re also polite.  Jesus uses this parable to rip off their pretty, polite masks.  So exposed, everyone sees that what lies underneath is not pretty nor polite but scorn and violent intent.  So of course they wanted him dead.

But what about you and what about me?  Does this parable unmask us as well?  Do we need to hear it as the offensive slap to the face it is?  Do we need our pretty politeness to be stripped off of us?

What if I reworked it a bit?  Try these ones on for size:

There are two sons.  One is a bit unruly and a lot reckless but the minute you need him to run an errand he is there to do it.  The other will smile at you to your face and say, “Yes, father” but the minute you leave town for the weekend, he’ll steal your Harley and crash it into a semi truck.

There are two daughters.  One is kind of a tom boy.  She swears, chews and spits.  She’s never worn a dress and she hangs out with those goths, who dress all in black.  When you ask her to do something, she’ll roll her eyes at you and ask “why?”  But then she always does it.  The other daughter is very beautiful and super polite.  She always says the nicest things.  She remembers her “please’s” and her “thank you’s” and she compliments all the right people.  But whenever you aren’t in the room she lies to your family and friends about how you are cruel and abusive to her and claims you wish she had never been born.

There are two employees.  One shows up a little late, forgets to shave, wears ragged clothes, tells off-color jokes to your most profitable clients and he curses like a sailor.  Yet, boy, does he know his stuff and work his tail off to meet and exceed quarterly goals.  The other always shows up on time.  He wears nice suits and has perfectly formatted hair.  His smile is broad and his words are charming.  But the minute the manager leaves the room he goes back to playing free cell on his computer.

If you will allow me one more, this one for my own unmasking.  There are two pastors.  One is a bit of a mess.  Her sermons are long.  Her exegesis is lacking.  Her mind is forgetful.  But the minute trouble finds you, she rushes over to your house, or hospital or morgue and cries with you until morning.  The other is professional in the extreme.  Her sermons are meticulous.  Her bible knowledge is unparalleled.  Her board meetings are well organized and always get out on time.  But she can’t remember your children’s names and nobody in the church can get a hold of her any time other than on a Sunday morning.

Which of these brothers, sisters, employees and pastors does the will of God?

And which are you?

And are you really going to let the others enter the kingdom of God ahead of you?  Are you going to let them beat you to Golgotha?  Or are you going to pick up your cross and follow?