Deep in the Gospel of Matthew today, Jesus offers a parable about what else, but a rough relationship between owner and tenant. However, in Jesus' story it's not the landlord who abuses his power and fails to care for those living on his land. No, it's the tenants who takes advantage of the landowner's trust and generosity.
Jesus had entered the final week of his life. It was time for any doubts about his mission and message -- among both his disciples and enemies alike -- to be cleared away. It was time to increase the intensity. So Jesus laid out this accusatory parable. In doing so, he opened the oven, cranked it to 450 degrees and filled the air around him with blistering heat, thus bringing his ministry in Jerusalem to a rolling boil.
The message was clear.
God is like a landlord who has leased his vineyard -- his kingdom -- to Israel as laborers. The time has come for God to demand fruit from his workers. He wants to see faith in his promises, repentance of sins and trust in his messengers. He wants his vineyard producing a wine that leaves the boundaries of the kingdom walls and fills the entire world with the goodness of what he grows. But rather than produce a measurable crop for the owner, the vineyard's residents have sat on their hands and have nothing to show him. As if that weren't bad enough, they've ignored his warnings of eviction and murdered every prophet he'd sent to represent his interests.
"Enough is enough," Jesus proclaimed. A time was at hand when "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits." God is no nasty slumlord. Israel, however, was an unfaithful, unfruitful tenant. The time of eviction had come. The time for new tenants -- faith-filled, Messiah-following, cross-focused tenants -- had arrived.
Soon after saying all of this, Jesus would be arrested. Go figure.
Here's the thing. It's tempting for Christians today, you know, the new tenants manning the vineyard, to read these words as simply a rebuke of the old guard. But that would be terribly shortsighted. No, if your landlord feels the need to recount stories of previous renters who failed to pay on time, threw parties that garnered visits from the police, and who dared to paint walls without permission, he's not simply reminiscing about the past. It's instruction for you right now!
To be sure, God isn't about to kick the Church out of the kingdom and start from scratch. That's not in the plan. This parable is not a threat to us. But it is highly instructive for us. From it we can discern what God's expectations are for those who've been given the task of living in his kingdom, producing fruit and sending wine into the world.
This is a parable about stewardship. You know, managing God's stuff on God's behalf. There are two central aspects of stewardship. The first is what we've been entrusted with and the second is what in the world we're supposed to do with it.