Parable of the wicked tenants
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed” (Matthew 21:43,44).
During lockdown last year, I lived with some messy people. I’d moved into a house that I shared with a wonderful couple of brothers. They were almost everything you could ask for in a set of housemates. Friendly, funny, respectful of your privacy . . . genuinely great people in almost every respect.
Except for their laissez-faire attitude to household chores.
I want to be clear here, I am not putting them on blast. Those who know me are aware that I too can have a somewhat lax policy when it comes to cleaning and chores. I was notorious for being the messiest of the six children in my family, which caused the brother I used to share a room with his fair share of frustrations. When it comes to messiness, my housemates were in good company.
The COVID-19 lockdown didn’t exactly help matters. Without guests popping in for a visit, the need to clean was almost non-existent. We did try to regularly tidy the place, but some aspects just didn’t get the love and care they deserved–chief amongst them the garden and backyard.
Have you ever seen a thistle the size of a fully grown man? It’s not a sight that belongs in suburbia, but we did our best to cultivate one in the front yard next to our bins.
When the year was up and we decided to move out, this became a problem. The mess that had been growing in the yard suddenly had the potential to affect our bond or relationship with the landlord. The situation was so dire and our gardening experience so inadequate that we did what anyone would do–we hired somebody to whip it into shape for us while we covered the cleaning inside the place.
Even though we did end up getting back the bond, the reality is . . . we were not the best tenants. In most aspects we were great, but when it came to maintaining and caring for the land that we were tasked with stewarding, we were neglectful in our duties.
One of the most interesting parables, in my opinion at least, is also about some bad tenants. Despite appearing in Matthew, Mark and Luke, this parable is often underexamined. Perhaps this is unsurprising as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants paints an extremely grim picture of what will happen to those who defy God’s instructions.
For those unfamiliar, the parable is a simple one. A farmer owns a vineyard, which he pays some tenants to maintain in time for the harvest. When the harvest comes and the farmer sends servants to collect, they are beaten and/or killed by the tenants. Eventually, the farmer sends his son hoping they will respect him and end this conflict. Instead, the son is killed and thrown out of the vineyard. The parable ends with Jesus proclaiming that the farmer will return and kill the tenants–replacing them with tenants who will give him what he is owed.
It’s not exactly uplifting stuff, but I think that’s partly why I’ve long been fascinated by it. While many speak of the New Testament message being one of love, this parable highlights a God who is unafraid to release His judgement and wrath against those who He deems fit.
The question many may ask about this parable is: who are these bad tenants?
When Jesus told the parable, it had a very clear answer. Matthew 21:45 describes the reaction of the Pharisees as recognising that the parable was comparing them to the tenants: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.”
In the context of the time, the message here is quite clear. God is the landowner, and the son is Jesus. The rejection of the son and the message of God is representative of the way the Pharisees ultimately were responsible for the death of Jesus–rejecting His message due to their desire to hold onto the power that was ultimately not theirs to begin with.
But what about the modern day? How can we read this piece as being relevant to our current circumstances? And is it possible we may share more in common with the wicked tenants than the ones the landowner replaces them with? Are we ignoring His orders, or worse yet, actively defying them?
I can’t speak for individuals, or even for the Adventist Church, but there is a trend I have seen in the broader Christian faith which I worry may be representative of this issue.
This concern comes from one of the earliest orders that God gives us. Genesis 2:15 describes one of the first actions that God takes after creating us: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Similarly, in Leviticus, when providing laws to the Israelites, He clearly lays out the relationship between Him, us and His land: “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me” (Leviticus 25:23, NLT).
The world we inhabit is not ours to do with as we see fit. We are mere stewards and should do our best to care for all of God’s creation. Unfortunately, many in the church seem to forget this. A survey from University of Cincinnati political scientist Matthew Arbuckle and Georgetown University public policy expert David Konisky showed that in America, Christians have lower levels of concern regarding environmental issues than non-Christians. Despite being the stewards of His environment and tenants of His land, we care less about it than others do!
Academics Bernard Daley Zaleha and Andrew Szasz argue that this, in part, stems from “apocalyptic beliefs about ‘end times’ that make it pointless to worry about global warming”.1 As Adventists, the second coming and the end times are indeed a key part of our faith, but it is important that we do not let our beliefs and understanding of these events supersede other instructions from the Lord. When speaking about God’s final judgement, Revelation 11:18 provides a clear-cut statement on how God will deal with those who ignore the responsibility He has given us: “It is time to destroy all who have caused destruction on the earth” (NLT).
Imagine if my housemates and I had not bothered to clean the garden or house because the end of our lease was coming up and we would no longer be living in the house. Our job was not just to maintain the house but prepare it for whatever the landlord wanted next–regardless of our feelings on the matter. Had we ignored this obligation I doubt our landlord would have been happy. And yet, when it comes to the land that God has made us tenants of, we are too often quiet. When the Victorian state government in Australia attempts to continue environmentally harmful logging, we do not speak up.2 Similarly, we are silent when those living on islands in the Torres Strait or across the South Pacific are confronted by the rise of sea levels and destruction of natural wildlife,3 and when investors and speculators around the world continue to invest in destructive and harmful business.4
Not only is this a stance that goes against biblical teachings, it is also hurting our outreach. In most countries, fewer than three per cent of people say that climate change is not a serious issue,5 with more than 70 per cent of adults aged 18 to 34 saying they worry about these issues.6 How can we hope to engage with younger generations if we do not comment on the issues that concern them–or worse yet, actively downplay these issues?
But what does this mean for us on a personal level? Many have accurately pointed out that the solution to these issues lies mainly in the hands of governments and large corporations. This is a fair point. But this does not mean that God expects us to sit by idly. The tenants in the vineyard were not merely tasked with taking care of the house—they also prepared the garden for harvest.
We have also been tasked with a harvest. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19,20). The tenants in the parable show us one path–a path that awaits us should we rest complacently in our churches and not follow through on this mission.
These two roles we have are not separate. We are both caretakers of His property and commissioned to speak for Him. If we neglect one of these roles, the other will suffer. Ignoring these issues in our outreach undermines the mission that Jesus gave us to “teach them. . . everything I have commanded you” –and, as the previous statistics show, may make it difficult to forge genuine connections with the many in younger generations for who this is an issue of grave importance.
This parable reminds me of the importance of being a good tenant both in practice and in fellowship. We must follow the will of the Landlord–lest we be harshly judged on His return.
Ryan Stanton is Media and Communications school PhD student at the University of Sydney.