Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Today, Jesus tells another parable.

We hear, in our reading from the 21st Chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. This one is stark in its exposure of human nature at its worst.

We are told of a landowner who planting a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a wine press in it, and builds a watch-tower. The landowner then leases the vineyard to some tenants and goes to another country. When the harvest time comes, he sends his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seize his slaves and kill them and when the landowner sends more slaves, they treat those slaves in the same way. Finally the landowner sends his son, and when the tenants see the son, believing they will gain the inheritance, they kill the son, also. (Matthew 21:33-39)

The first thing we might notice about this parable is the careful way in which the landowner prepares the vineyard. Everything is set up; all the preparatory work is done. The vineyard is planted with a wine press dug in. And the vineyard is protected against animals and thieves with a fence built around it and a watch tower in place. What we might notice here is that the vineyard is protected against any threats from the outside. That is what this landowner has done. Very careful preparation.

This might put us in mind of our Old Testament reading this morning in which we heard the account of the giving of The Ten Commandments. In this story we hear about God setting up God’s community very carefully. And this time, God is setting things up for protection on the inside. God establishes a covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai in the desert and God protects that covenant by the giving of these commandments, guidelines on how the people are to live well with God and with one another.

Then God spoke all these words:

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before* me. (Exodus 20:1-3)

God is speaking directly to the people of Israel which is very unusual in the story of the Exodus. Usually God speaks through Moses. But these commandments are so important that God speaks them to the people God-self.

God has led his people out of slavery in Egypt, slavery under Pharaoh. The place of slavery is the place of endless work, endless activity. God has invited the people into a covenant life, a relationship with God and now God gives guidelines on how to live this relationship well. With the Ten Commandments, God is setting up protection for the community on the inside, for good relationships within the community.  The first four commandments are about living well with God. Firstly you shall have no other gods. Secondly, as God has no image – we only hear God speak, remember – you shall not make idols and you shall not worship idols. And thirdly, you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. This is how we are to live well with God.

The fourth commandment is also about thriving in the life of God. The fourth commandment is the commandment concerning the Sabbath.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. (Exodus 20:4)

As God did God’s work, so shall we. In the creation account in the Book Genesis, we read that God worked on creation for six days and then God rested on the seventh day. We tend to think of human beings as being the pinnacle of creation but that is not so. The seventh day is the pinnacle of creation. The seventh day is the day on which God delights in God’s creation. The Sabbath day is, in fact, the very purpose, the meaning of creation. This is what all the work is for.

We notice a sharp contrast with life in Egypt. In Egypt, under pharaoh, there is endless work, endless activity. There is no rest, no Sabbath, no treasuring of work, no treasuring of what one has created.

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, summarises: “The commandments are policies to create a society that practises [God’s] justice instead of pharaoh’s injustice, and to establish neighbourly well-being instead of coercion, fear and exploitation. The Exodus is not a one-time rescue; it is a …memory [told in liturgy] that continues to propel the tradition of command in Israel and the ways in which Israelites relate to [God] and to each other.”[1]

The symbol of slavery in Egypt is an eternal symbol. Endless activity, no rest, no time to delight in and reflect upon what we have done in a context of coercion. The Exodus story is an eternal story, a great theme of God. God is a God who frees us from slavery, from endless activity that is unreflected upon, creation by work in which there is no delight. God frees us from that and invites, rather than coerces, us into covenant with God.

And the first guidance God gives is about relating to God and to creation – worship only God. And find rest, Sabbath rest; find time to delight in creation.

The Sabbath commandment is in a central position in the list, acting as a link between the commandments concerning relationships with God and the commandments relating to human beings.

Walter Brueggemann notes:

“The command on the Sabbath looks forward: to a human community… peaceably engaged in neighbour-respecting life that is not madly engaged in production or consumption, but one that knows the limit to such activity and so has at the centre of its life an enactment of peaceableness that [speaks of] the settled rule of [God].”[2]

The last six commandments are about how we relate with one another. We know them well. Honour your father and your mother. Do not murder or commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not covert.

You shall not covert your neighbour’s house, or your neighbour’s wife, or your neighbour’s slave or ox or donkey. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Do not, if you are the tenant in a vineyard, covet so powerfully the produce of your landowner’s vineyard, that you break more than one commandment and kill the slaves who are sent to collect that produce. Do not covet so powerfully the produce of your landowner’s vineyard, that you kill the son who is sent to collect that produce, hoping to collect his inheritance as well.

The landowner who worked so hard to establish the vineyard, worked like God worked to set up creation and give laws to help that creation thrive, protecting the vineyard from threats from the outside, with the fence and the watchtower. What the landowner could not do was protect the vineyard from threats on the inside. Threats from the tenants who so coveted the produce that they would kill anyone who tried to get in their way. The Ten Commandments were there to do that. Were there, as Walter Brueggemann said, to establish “Yahweh’s justice instead of pharaoh’s injustice, and to establish neighbourly well-being instead of coercion, fear and exploitation.” And yet, the commandments were broken.  And the son died.

Where does this parable shed light? Where does it niggle at us? Is there any situation in which we find ourselves challenged by it?

Does this parable shed light on our failure to protect the vineyard that is our planet? God created the world and created human beings and gave us responsibility for the world, for the earth and all the creatures who call the earth home. How we have failed so? Are we like the wicked tenants, stopping at nothing to assuage our greed? Does this parable shed light on our failure to share our resources, and, indeed, our work? We live in a city where, shortly many more of our community will be out of work. Our failure is a collective failure; it is hard to pin down where the responsibility lies. But we must know that the responsibility envelops us all. As the commandments of God envelop us all.

Jesus said to the religious leaders, to whom he is telling his parable, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people that produce the fruits of that kingdom if they fail the kingdom as the tenants failed the landowner. Is that what God is saying to us about our planet, about a just sharing of resources, or work? Or if we see the insight that the parable gives might it not be too late? Might God give us another chance?

Whatever the situation in which we find ourselves, wherever the parable seems to speak to us, *we might wonder if the key to our failure is somehow connected to the commandment at the centre of God’s list – the one that looks forward and backward –God exhorting us that we remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. That coveting and clutching, be it about our planet or about anything else, might have at its heart a failure to know the holy Sabbath rest of God. That we need to find a way to rest. That we do not work all the time and that we treasure and delight in the earth and our place in it.

Jesus who says that the essence of the commandments is to love God and love neighbour, also says to us “Come unto me all you who labour and carry heavy burdens and you will find rest.” Perhaps that is where we may begin again. With the fourth commandment. The central commandment. The commandment to keep the holy day of rest.


[1] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament p184. (Brueggemann uses ‘Yahweh’ instead of God.)

[2] Ibid., p185.