“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time 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. 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 his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. – Matthew 21:33-46
There’s a scene near the beginning of the movie “Men in Black” where the two main characters, played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are sitting on a park bench. Smith’s character is a cop, and Jones’ character is one of those beyond-top-secret, off-the-grid federal agents who have the job of dealing with extraterrestrials here on earth and keeping their existence secret from the general public. Just before the park bench scene, Jones has brought Smith into their headquarters and invited him to join their super-s ecret group. While he’s there, Smith is shocked when he meets his first real-live aliens, just hanging out around the coffee pot in the breakroom, of all places.
So there these two characters are, sitting there on the park bench as Smith is trying to process this shocking new knowledge he’s gained that aliens are real, and all around him, and trying to decide whether he should join the Men in Black. At one point in the conversation, Tommy Lee Jones is discussing human knowledge, and how it’s shifted over time, and he says, “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
Human understanding, and knowledge, does shift over time. That’s true in general, and it’s true in terms of our religious thought, too. In fact, the examples that Tommy Lee Jones offered were both examples of religious-based “knowledge” that was later proven to be flat wrong. It isn’t hard to come up with other examples. We used to know that human slavery was not just acceptable, but ordained, by God. We used to know that some races were designed by God to be inferior to others. We used to know that drinking, and dancing, and playing cards were sinful abominations in the eyes of God. We knew that women were subordinate to men, and that they weren’t supposed to be in leadership positions in the church, and that if they had any questions in church they were supposed to keep quiet and just ask their husbands about it once they got home. We knew that our understanding of Christianity, coming out of the Western European tradition, was superior to the other, sometimes very different, ways of understanding the faith originating in other places around the globe; in Africa, or Asia, or even the Holy Land itself. Some of us know that God is a Republican, or a Democrat – take your pick.
And for a long time, many Christians – probably most Christians, unfortunately – used to know that the Jewish people were the “Christ Killers” – that they had angered God and were deserving of God’s worst wrath. That because of their hard-headedness, God had cast them aside and replaced them with us Christians as his new chosen people.
This idea is called “Replacement Theology,” and for centuries the Christian church gripped onto it tightly. You’ll find it in the writings of the early church fathers. During the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote horrible, scathing attacks on the Jewish people. John Calvin didn’t write as much about the Jews as Luther, but what he did write was every bit as hateful and anti-Semitic. You can even find Replacement Theology in the writing of the great 20th century theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It wasn’t until after WW II, when the church was forced to see how their anti-Jewish teachings had fed and given cover to the mindset that allowed the Holocaust to occur, that we finally began to reexamine and question what we supposedly “know” about the relationship among us, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, and God.
It’s a little ironic that this passage comes up in our Lectionary today, just a day after the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, arguably the holiest of days in the Jewish year – because this parable from Matthew’s gospel has often been used throughout the history of the church to support this ugly idea of Replacement Theology. There really isn’t any question that the way Matthew’s author has presented this gospel, that he’s interpreting Jesus’ words to make the Replacement Theology argument. And maybe we could say that when this gospel was written, Christians were still a distinct minority in the friction that existed between Christians and Jews, so this bit of theological sour grapes wasn’t so harmful when he wrote it. But a couple of centuries later, when Christianity became officially sanctioned by the Roman government, and Christians eventually became a majority over Jews, this understanding of what we “knew” became a very dangerous thing. With all due respect to the author of Matthew’s gospel, I think it’s important to ask ourselves if maybe he missed the real point of what Jesus had said some 50-odd years before this gospel was written down.
When we look at the parable, we get pretty quickly that we’re supposed to see the landowner as God, who’s entrusted some group of people to carry out some task on his behalf. But this group, whoever they’re supposed to be, doesn’t do that, and they abuse and even kill the landowner’s representatives, who we’re supposed to understand are the various prophets that God sent out into the world. Ultimately, this group even kills the landowner’s son, who of course, we can’t help but understand is Jesus himself. And after telling this story, Jesus asks the people listening to him, “What will the landowner do to these tenants?” And his listeners say “He will kill them and let out the vineyard to others.” Then, Jesus tells the people who gave that answer that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to others.
Matthew, and many Christians over the past 2,000 years, want us to “know” that it’s at least the Jewish religious leaders, and maybe the entirety of the Jewish people, who are this group of people represented by the bad tenants; and that, of course, the Christians are the good tenants who are going to now possess what God has supposedly stripped from the bad tenants after they rejected God’s Son.
But I wonder if maybe the bad tenants don’t represent the Jews, but rather, pretty much all of us. I wonder if we aren’t all just as much the bad tenants as anyone else. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection atones for all of our sins, across all time and space and nationality, and the fact that we’re all in need of that atonement means that we’re all just as complicit in Jesus’ death as Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate. We’re all, in part, the bad tenants who have killed the landowner’s son. So we’d all better hope that God, the landowner, won’t deal with us the way that Jesus’ listeners said he should – the way that makes sense according to our own sense of justice. Thankfully, we find out the answer to Jesus’ question “What will the landowner do with the bad tenants?” by looking at his own life. From the cross itself, Jesus, the real landowner’s Son, prayed for God to forgive the people who were responsible for his death, and through his resurrection, we know that God accepted and answered that prayer, offering reconciliation to all of us.
I wonder if Jesus told those original listeners of his that the Kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to others because they showed that they didn’t understand the full depth of God’s love and forgiveness and acceptance, because they expected him to be vengeful against the tenants. I wonder if Jesus meant that the Kingdom of God wouldn’t be taken from them because they’d answered Jesus’ question right, as Matthew suggests, but rather, because they’d actually answered the question wrong.
I think our own faith should be built around this understanding – that we aren’t some special group replacing other group that God considers bad, but rather, that we’re part of the problem group, too – but God still chooses to forgive us and accept us anyway. If we can keep that thought in focus, it’s much easier for us to see the face of God, and the love of God, in all people around the globe. Believing that, we can put aside and repent for the evils of Replacement Theology, and we can work to reconcile the differences between us and our Jewish brothers and sisters. Believing that, we can have unity and communion with Christians around the world, even those who have very different ways of understanding the faith than we do. Believing that, we can extend God’s love, illustrated by Christ’s life, to all people, regardless of their religious, racial, or ethnic background. Doing *those* kinds of things is the real meaning in the parable of giving the landowner what he’s due. I think that’s one thing that we can safely say that we know today. And if we continue to follow God’s Spirit wherever it leads, just imagine what we’ll know tomorrow.
Thanks be to God.