The Parable of the Wicked Tenants; Matthew 21:33-43
(…continued) Knowing what we know about renting and owning, what can we say about that? First of all we might want to ask, “What on earth could they have be thinking?” Were those tenants insane? Is that how it works: if you kill the owner, you get the land? Who ever heard of that? That maybe worked in the days of the caveman, or in the darkest depths of the uncivilized jungle, or in the Wild West days of the American frontier. But this was the Roman empire. It was a long time ago, yes, but Rome had a highly efficient, well organized, and strong government and legal system. They had laws about land ownership and deeds to that land, they had judges and courts, and they had soldiers to enforce the laws. What made those tenants ever think they could kill the landowner’s son and then get to keep the land? The response of the people in verse 41 indicates that the landowner would be quite able to put a stop to such nonsense. They said he would ‘put an end to those wretches,’ implying he had the legal means to do so.
So what could they have been thinking? Well, there is only one way to make any sense of it, and that is if they assumed that the landowner was too far away to make an issue of it all just yet. Back in verse 33 it said that the landowner rented the place out in the first place because he was going away on a journey. It doesn’t say where he was going or how long he would be gone, but the renters must have thought he was far enough away and would be gone long enough to make such a desperate gamble worth the attempt. After all, the servants were all either dead or in the hospital, the son was dead, and well, maybe the old man wouldn’t be up to making the trip back just yet. So they thought the land would be theirs, at least until someone showed up to make an issue out of it; and who knows, that might not be for a while. Yes, the day of reckoning; the day of soldiers, eviction, arrest, perhaps even execution; would someday come. But the landowner was so far away, and the time of reckoning so far off, that well, maybe they could live out a good number of days, perhaps even years, before the judgment would come. Isn’t that just the way many people treat their relationship with God, thinking him too far off to have to worry about just yet?
The Bible’s description of God’s relationship with each of us goes back and forth between grace and judgment. Both are in this parable. This is certainly a very gracious and patient landowner, isn’t it? These tenants are very bad men. The landowner could have called in the authorities right after the first servants were beaten. But he tries again, and then even a third time; and this time, sending, risking, his own son, for these thieves and murderers. The first part of the parable is indeed filled with undeserved mercy and grace. There is a word of comfort and hope there for everyone, no matter how great a sinner. God is far more patient with us than we would ever be with each other. “Can even a serial killer and cannibal like Jeffery Dahmer be forgiven and saved?,“ asked the confirmation student. “Yes,“ said the pastor, “If he repents of his sin and believes in Jesus, God’s own Son who died for us.” And there were reports that Dahmer did repent and come to Jesus in prison, just before he himself was murdered. Grace even Jeffrey Dahmer, even these wicked tenants? Yes, says the parable. So there is indeed hope for everyone, isn’t there? This is a wonderful parable of God’s gracious longsuffering and patience.
But we must not ignore the next part. When the son himself is rejected, the patience ends and judgment comes. Make no mistake about it, here, and from the first pages to the last pages, the Bible warns us that the judgment will come. Without repentance, the only hope that the wicked tenants had was that the landowner was far away, and would not return for a very long time, and that’s not much of a hope.
The Bible tells us that God is very close to us. God is in our heart. God is in his Word. The very hairs of your head are numbered, said Jesus. God is very close to you. And that is good news; that is, if you want God close to you.
But if you are like the wicked tenants, and you want to live without God in your life, and want to reject his word and promise for you; then, it will not be very good news to hear that God is close to you. Then your only hope would be if God was far away, and would not bother with you, and you would never have to face God. If one has this attitude toward God, then the parable comes as a harsh warning. For just like the tenants owed the rent to the landowner, we owe God our very lives and obedience and faith– and the day of reckoning will come.
This warning is not only for unbelievers. As believers in Jesus Christ, we may take comfort in the first half of the parable. We do want the Lord close to us and gracious to us. That is good news and the source of our hope. But we are not perfect yet, and the sinner that remains in us may not want God watching too closely, all the time. Do you really want God seeing everything you do and hearing everything you say? He does see and hear all things, you know. So the word of warning here is for us, too. God is not far away, but is always very close. In that Word is our comfort when we are troubled; but at the same time, that Word means to trouble us when we become too comfortable in our sin.
May God give us the grace and the faith and the obedience to live our lives in such a way that we find his presence comforting and not troubling.
Hebrews 9:27-28 — Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
Acts 16:30-31a — He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
–The ancient ‘Jesus Prayer’