CHURCH TENANTS Matthew 21:33-45

Notes for a sermon with the Anglican congregation of St. James, Kingston, Ontario, October 4, 1987

by Robert Brow  (

This parable used to be called the parable of the wicked husbandmen, which means nothing to most people. So I will call it the parable of the church tenants. And you can see, it is a parable about the church, in this case the Jewish church establishment in Jerusalem. The previous parable was about the laborers, or ordinary Jewish people working in the vineyard. This one is about the tenants, and the chief priests and the Pharisees easily realized that it was about them as church leaders.

In both cases Jesus pictured the church as a vineyard. In our city the large vineyard operation is the church of all denominations working in many different ways in Kingston. In the parable of the laborers we noted the large number of different jobs that were needed, and there was no lack of work for anyone (Matthew 20:1-16).

We cannot imagine the termination of our form of church life here in our city, but Jesus was announcing the end of the Jewish church establishment in Jerusalem, and he said that new tenants would be appointed from among people of all nations..

The Messiah Son of God, was obviously not pleased with the way the Jewish tenants or church leaders were minding the vineyard. He expected them to produce a large vintage of new wine every year. "When the harvest had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way" (Matthew 21:34-36). That obviously referred to the many Old Testament prophets God had sent, and instead of listening to their warnings, the Jewish church leaders had treated them abominably.

The last straw was when God sent his Son. The parable goes on "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 get the inheritance.' So, they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him" (Matthew 21:37-39). And it is easy to see from church history that things keep going wrong when church leaders imagine that the church belongs to them, and Jesus is the dangerous threat that must be removed.

Jesus then asked the Jewish church leaders to admit what they deserved. "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They knew what the answer must be. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him the produce at harvest time" (Matthew 21:40-41).

But they were given a forty year period to change course before the destruction of the city in the generation that ended with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. We often forget that many of the Pharisees like Saul of Tarsus, and even the temple priests became Messiah believers during that time. As recorded by Luke, "The word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith" (Act 6:7).

The leasing of the vineyard to other tenants began when uncircumcized Greek speaking Jews all over the Mediterranean were welcomed into the new synagogues of the Holy Spirit through the work of Barnabas and Paul and others. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the leadership of church congregations was taken over by the people of each country in the Roman Empire and in countries to the east as far as Arabia and China.

What did church leaders fail to learn in the Old Testament period, and also among us in the past two thousand years? The founding promise to Abraham and his offspring, including both the Arab children of Ishmael, and the Jewish children of Israel, was that "in you all families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). The one purpose of Jews, Arabs, and Christians has always been that through them all people of the world come to know the love of God, and to love one another. That is the good wine of the Lord's vineyard. When that is forgotten things begin to go wrong.

First the leadership begins to think that faith is a means of promoting their own power. And then the next step is when the Son of God is dishonored and excluded. When that happens, inevitable judgment is on the horizon.

So what does Jesus' parable of the church tenants mean for us? Our congregation of St. James is a part of the Lord's vineyard in this city. We do not exist for our own comfort and glory. Our one purpose is to study the Word of God and grasp what Jesus the Messiah wants as fruit from us. Then we must make sure that we are involved in making this known among all nations. I hope that is going to be our program this winter.

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