This parable continues Jesus' response to the chief priests and elders who had questioned him about his protest in the temple (Matthew 21:12-17):
"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" (21:23). The conversation began with Jesus posing a counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist, his opponents refusing to answer the counter-question, and Jesus therefore refusing to state directly the source of his authority (21:23-32). In this ensuing parable, however, Jesus does give them an indirect answer. And they get it. And they reject it.
Given the context of this narrative, it is somewhat misleading to call the parable, "the parable of the wicked tenants" as we often call it. The tenants, of course, play a major role, but the parable intends mainly to clarify who Jesus is, for those who listen. It is a synopsis of the entire Gospel story. So we might also call it "the parable of the rejected and vindicated son." Not quite as catchy, but more to Matthew's point.
Who is Jesus according to this parable? He is the Son who has come to reclaim what rightfully belongs to his Father. He is the Son whose mission is violently rejected by the Father's own tenants. He is the Son whose rejection is vindicated by the Father. And he is the Son whose vindication prompts the final judgment of the unfaithful tenants. To avoid getting distracted by certain details in the parable which are merely stylistic (e.g., the Father having gone "to another country"), the preacher would do well to stay somewhere within this basic Christological plot. I will focus mainly on the Son's mission and rejection.
In coming to reclaim what rightly belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. One need only look at Jesus' ministry to see what this looks like: the sick are made well, sinners are restored, and God is praised (Matthew 9:8). In short, Jesus brings wholeness to a broken world, providing proleptic glimpses into what he elsewhere calls "the kingdom of heaven." This is what God's creation is supposed to look like.
But the restoration of God's creation meets opposition from those with a vested interest in the brokenness of the world. The tenants enter. It is easy to see that these represent Jesus' own opponents in the narrative, the very chief priests and elders who are asking about his authority and who will soon seek his destruction (the Pharisees are also mentioned in 21:45). What is harder to see, however, is Jesus' tacit acknowledgment that they have in fact been appointed by God. In the parable, they are hired by the landowner to protect and maintain the vineyard. They are not marauders tearing down the fence to plunder.
This makes their failure all the more tragic: they have broken the landowner's trust. More specifically, they have presumptuously staked a claim to that which does not rightfully belong to them. Given the scriptural precedent of referring to Israel as God's "vineyard" (e.g., Isaiah 3:14; 5:1-7; 27:2; Jeremiah 12:10), Jesus' point seems to be that his opponents have mistaken their leadership over Israel for outright ownership of Israel. This clarifies who exactly Jesus was indicting in his temple protest on the previous day: "My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you (Greek: plural humeis) are making it a den of robbers" (Matthew 21:13). Entrusted to oversee the house of God, they rebelliously rob God. The precise nature of this "robbery" is not Matthew's main concern. His main concern is the simple fact that they are responsible for pointing Israel to God, yet they have instead pointed her to themselves. The indictment, then, is not against Israel per se, or even against the temple "institution," but rather against God's appointed leaders.
The tragedy lies not only in their selfish rebellion but in the blindness that rebellion produces. This brings us to a very important exegetical point: the parable can trick us into thinking that the chief priests and elders recognize Jesus as God's "Son." All that they recognize, however, is that Jesus has claimed to be the Son. The parable serves to show how the temple leaders have been entrusted by God and how they have rebelled against God. It also prophesies their violent rejection of the Son. Jesus' opponents understand all of this. They get the parable, but they reject its truth. "Yes, we are God's tenants, but we are not those tenants; and you are certainly not God's Son."
Thus, my use of the word "blindness." For those who cannot see Jesus' transformative ministry as God's will for the world, the Son will only seem a renegade and blasphemer (Matthew 26:63-68). In other words, the chief priests and elders do not knowingly reject God and God's Son. What they do know is that God has appointed them as leaders, and that this Jesus has attacked their authority. They cannot see--or have lost sight of--what God's will for the world really is. So, in their eyes, Jesus' ministry can only be a scandal.
In my last posting, I wrote that we should avoid standing comfortably behind Jesus and waving our accusatory fingers at his opponents. Instead we should put ourselves in their shoes and risk being confronted by what Jesus has to say. As Matthew's audience, it is easy to disparage the chief priests and elders; Matthew has made the truth of Jesus obvious to us who already believe. Yet when we step back from the Gospel and examine ourselves, we will inevitably find glimpses of the rebellious and self-serving tenants.
The issue is not fundamentally one of "leadership," although the conflict takes that particular form in this week's story. The issue is one of rendering to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). For anyone called by God to a particular ministry--namely everyone--there is the temptation to claim ownership of that ministry, to confuse service with entitlement. These are Jesus' own temptations in a nutshell (Matthew 4:1-11). For us, the moment a sense of entitlement creeps into "our" ministry is the moment we have closed ourselves off to what Jesus is doing in the world. In that scenario we no longer serve Jesus; we protect ourselves from him. In our blindness we proclaim, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance" (21: 38).