“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” (Matthew 21:33–46)
When I was working in property management, there were four days of the year which are especially crucial. Most of my year was taken up with inspecting buildings, making sure that repairs took place, valuing shops and offices and negotiating with possible tenants. My job was to manage the property assets of a number of pension funds, and ensure that they were kept in good order. No point in having a shiny new shopping centre if the roof leaks. What’s the point of an office block if the lifts don’t work and the workers can’t get in. If the barrier at the entrance gate to an industrial estate doesn’t work, there won’t be much industry taking place. Property management meant keeping on top of all of this, and having a good list of builders who could get something done quickly.
And then there was the parking. If you manage a city centre office block, then it doesn’t take too long for enterprising shoppers to spot an empty car park space. This was the era of the rise of wheel clamping, and there wasn’t a clamping firm in Bristol I didn't know. There also wasn't a clamping firm in Bristol who would dare clamp my car if I left my card in the windscreen!
But for all that, there were four days of the year which were the most important: the quarter days. The four days when the rent was due, and the pension funds got their hands on the cold hard cash they needed to pay out all those pensions. This was the day for sitting on the phone to late payers, and keeping an eye on the accounts. The landlords might all be sitting in their offices in London, but their tenants in Bristol, Reading and Truro were all expected to cough up when the rent demand hit the doormat. Such was the life of a young property manager.
The quarterly payment of rent was a continual reminder that the tenant did not, in fact, own the building. The great, thick leases full of legal clauses dealing with every aspect of the premises was the handbook for what could, or could not, be done. Only certain kinds of business could be carried out, and if you breached your lease you might end up evicted from the property. After all, this isn’t your building and rules are rules. That’s how the game works, and that’s how the game worked in Jesus’ day.
In this parable we find tenants of a vineyard refusing to pay the rent. The landlord sends out his servants to collect in the rent, and the tenants kill them. One by one. In the end the landlord sends his son, and the tenants gleefully kill him too: “let us kill him and have his inheritance”. They wanted the vineyard for themselves, and anyone who reminded them that it wasn’t theirs and that rent was due was killed.
Jesus is here challenging the way we view the very world we inhabit. Is it ours, or is it the possession of the God who created it? A few chapters later Jesus sits overlooking Jerusalem and laments:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)
In this echo of his parable, Jesus is calling to mind those prophets who were killed for their words. Traditionally, the prophet Isaiah, was sawn in two and of course Jesus’ own cousin, John the Baptist, was beheaded. It would seem that Jerusalem didn’t like to be reminded that they were only tenants after all.
If you were to understand that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1) you would look at things very differently. You would understand yourself to be a steward rather than a possessor. A tenant and not the landlord. To continue with the illustration, you would find in the scriptures your lease and the foundation of your tenancy.
The point of the parable was that the chief priests and the Pharisees (the tenants of Israel the vineyard) had rejected the prophets and would ultimately go on to kill the Son on Good Friday. They had not produced the fruits of repentance and faith in Christ, and so the vineyard would be taken from then and be given to a “people producing its fruits”. A bare reliance on turning up to the temple, and a strict emphasis on religious observance was not enough. In the end they had assumed that they controlled the religion, and not God. They had forgotten that they were only tenants, stewards of the faith.
This parable plays out in each individual life. Do you acknowledge God as your ‘landlord’ are do you rather act as if you owned your possessions and your very life itself? When you are reminded by visiting servants of God’s claims, are you prone to simply dismiss them (I assume you are too polite to kill them)?
If we can begin to live our lives as tenants, then it will transform the way we view the world. Rather than a spirit of entitlement, we will glory that we have been allowed to live in such a glorious place, and received the gift of life at all!
How much more glorious to see life as a gift rather than a right!
How much more glorious to have kept the terms of the lease, so that when the young property manager carried out the quarterly inspection there was nothing to fear!