Gospel Reflection for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Don’t you love to hate on the Pharisees?
Now, I’ve read enough Tom Wright at this point to have a little more sympathy for them. After all, the Pharisees truly cared about being God’s people. They did their best to live as God’s people, and to guide all of Israel to live as God’s people even as they were conquered, colonized, oppressed, and dispersed.
But it’s so easy, in many of the gospel stories, to feel a slightly smug sense of superiority to the Pharisees. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand who Jesus was, even when it seems so clear to us in hindsight. We aren’t blind like them; we understand and believe the truth that they rejected.
The gospel reading for this week, Matthew 21:33-46, offers us one of those chances to feel superior to the Pharisees. Jesus tells a parable in which he is God’s son and the Pharisees are wicked people who kill him due to greed and malice.
This is the parable: there was man who planted a vineyard, then leased it to tenants. But when the landowner sent his servants to collect the produce of the vineyard, the tenants kill the servants. Then the landowner sends his son — and the tenants plot to kill him, too, and take his inheritance (the vineyard) for themselves.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is telling this parable after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple. The priests, elders and Pharisees question the source of Jesus' authority, and in response he tells them two parables; this is the second. At its conclusion, Jesus asks his audience: what will the landowner do to these tenants? The crowd gives the obvious answer: he will “bring those wretches to a wretched end” (Matt. 21:41, NIV).
Jesus affirms this answer, and the religious leaders are fully aware that Jesus is putting them in the role of the tenants: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them” (Matt. 21:45, NIV).
Unlike other passages that might touch a nerve or make me consider my own life in Christ, my first reaction to this parable is relief, quickly followed by self-righteousness. I’m not killing prophets or plotting to arrest Jesus; this story proclaims judgement for those people.
But I wonder. When do I claim something as mine that belongs to God?
After all, the tenants were doing all the work of maintaining and harvesting. The landowner was far away, removed from the daily labor of the vineyard. Is it really that surprising that the tenants resented the demand that they turn over the fruits of their efforts to someone else — even if that person did plant the vineyard?
I don’t like asking how I’m like the Pharisees, how I’m missing God in ways that might be painfully obvious in hindsight. How my community might be claiming something as ours and refusing to acknowledge that it actually belongs to God. How we might be rejecting, even violently rejecting, those who point us back to the one who made the vineyard in the first place.
As difficult as these questions may be, I encourage us to ask them. Not because we don’t want to be like the bad Pharisees; that’s an unhelpfully reductive view. But because we don’t want to forget the one we serve.