Parable without an End

Lessons for Proper 22, Year A: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; and, Matthew 21:33-46

Parables can be tricky stories for preachers or commentators, and even sometimes for ardent students of the Bible. In such endeavors, we run the risk of simplification or facile answers, or else we run the risk of creating academic tedium and an over-elucidated experience. I had a professor who warned us future preachers that preaching on the parables can be like giving a tour of the Grand Canyon all the while standing in everyone else’s line of vision. I had a similar experience at an art museum in Florence. Having joined a tour group from home, we were guided through the museum by a docent who carried a large placard with a large number “9”. That was our tour group number, a precaution against getting lost or left behind; but, every time the docent stopped at one of the Baroque and Renaissance pieces on display that placard would hide my view of the art. The information that the docent was sharing was interesting and somewhat important, but I so wanted to just behold the masterpiece and let it flood over me. I wanted the raw beauty of the art and majesty of the story that it told to just hit me in the gut. There is a place, of course, for the details about geological history and artistic tradition but not in the exact moment you’re trying to experience the wonderful creation itself.

The Peril of Preaching the Parable

Parables are precious gems, tightly packed tales meant to confound and amaze, evoke and provoke. They are meant precisely to hit you in the gut! Their power is more forceful in your experience than in any explanation of it. We preachers and commentators like to smash the gems open to see what’s inside. Nevertheless, and no matter what you hear this morning, remember what you felt as you heard that parable proclaimed this morning. Keep that feeling with you. Tuck It away. Did you feel anger or resentment? Were you confused or confounded? Did you experience disbelief or amazement? Hold on to that experience! It will be the key to your imaginative engagement, not with this parable, but with Jesus.

Now, many perils ahead lie ahead for the preacher of the parable. I am asked to comment and remark on such a text, even as I am also quite tempted to let the parable do all the work. So, at the risk of smashing the gem (I will try to be careful) and ruining your experience (please forgive me if I do), maybe I can shine even a dim light on the story so that its many and varied hues deepen ever so slightly. 

Indeed, there is so very much that can be said about this gem. I could show you its masterful structure and arc. I could make comment on the Old Testament resonances, especially that which it shares with Isaiah 5, although the Isaiah passage is much more concerned with the destruction of the vineyard (i.e. Israel) than those who go to the vineyard to collect the harvest. I could talk about the prefigurement of the characters: the servants stand in for the various prophets of Israel, Jesus is recognizable as the son of the landowner, and the tenants are the notorious chief priests and elders. But there is one part of the story that you might have missed, and that is understandable because it is not there!

The Parable without an End

That’s right, a part of the story that I think is worth noticing is a part that is not there! Notice and linger over the fact that Jesus does not finish the parable. Jesus sets up the story, and he prepares us for the punchline; but, instead of delivering, Jesus ends the story by asking a question to the listeners: the chief priests and Pharisees. 

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

Matthew 21:40

It is the listeners who are offered the chance to finish the parable. And so, filled with self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, and maybe just a tinge of vengeance, the listeners answer: 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Matthew 21:41

Notice, and I think that this might be important, Jesus does not confirm nor does he contradict their answer. Jesus apparently lets their conclusion stand.

However, after some further explanation by Jesus, it suddenly dawns on the listeners (who have provided their own ending to the story) that maybe Jesus was talking about them: Are we those violent tenants? Is he saying that we have rejected and killed the servants and the son of the landowner? Is he blaming us for the rejection of Israel’s prophets? Indeed, in their violent and vengeful answer, the listeners indict themselves. 

The issue at hand is their rejection of the prophets and their rejection of the son. We know that their rejection of the son, matched with the Roman authorities’ power to execute, will lead to Jesus’ actual death. Their rejection, in other words, is not solely in the parable but will be and is on the very real hill of Calvary.

Our Rejection of the Son

But what is it to us? What does it matter if some chief priests and Pharisees rejected Jesus some two thousand years ago? What might that have to do with us? The short answer is that Jesus who was rejected by those he came to save is evident in our lives, too. We should not be too quick to distance ourselves from those who were unable to see Jesus for who he was in the first century. They are us! And, we are them! Their rejection of Jesus is our own participation in Good Friday. Their rejection of the son then is our present complicity in the death-dealing forces of this world. In our inability to see before us the son of God, this parable threatens to shatter us just like it did the chief priests and Pharisees.

We reject the son and take part in the death of Jesus in big and small ways, and that should surprise no one. It happens in our neglect of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked. It happens with our dismissal of the outcast and our apathy towards refugees and immigrants. It happens in our protection of, participation in, and propping up of racist, misogynistic, and non-affirming systems. When we are quick to pick and choose the teachings of Jesus we’d like to follow and those we wouldn’t, it is a participation in his rejection. When we judge the sins of others but refuse to see our own, it is a rejection of grace and forgiveness offered in Jesus. When we sing praises to Jesus’ name but then shout, “Crucify him!,” it is a rejection of our Lord. We do our part in rejecting Jesus  

The Parable with an End

Now, in the end, we would do well to remember that it was not Jesus who finished the parable (nor does Jesus affirm the answer of the chief priests and Pharisees). Instead, Jesus offers a quote from Psalm 118: 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

Matthew 21:42; quoting Psalm 118:22-23

Jesus came to those who would reject him and he comes to those who reject him still. This might be the most wondrous gift of all. Jesus gave himself over to the authorities and the principalities, not because he wanted to die, but because he was willing to give himself over and walk through the door of death out of a great depth of love for us. Despite our rejection, complicity, judgment, and self-wielding indictment,  Jesus comes to us, for us, and with us.

Jesus will ultimately finish this parable when he bursts through the tomb and conquers death! He finishes the parable when he rises from the dead. Jesus’ answer to the question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” is found in the resurrection.

 “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”….”Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:34, 43

The answer is grace upon grace for all who have rejected him. It is forgiveness. It is new life.

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