Jesus’ parables, in the words of my teacher Scot McKnight, invite hearers to “imagine a world like this…” Like a good novel or film, you get swept up into another world for a moment and when its over you’re dropped back into our world pondering what you just saw, heard, experienced or imagined. Jesus’ parables fire our imagination and invite us to see the world through Jesus’ “Kingdom lenses.”
Parables really the best window we have into Jesus’ worldview and values, and the many ways his Kingdom reality subverts and challenges our current world’s values. So let’s probe some parables to see the kind of a world Jesus is inviting his followers to imagine and then bring that world into existence in our relationships and community life together.
We begin with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matt 21:33-40)
This is one of the more allegorical parables, and clearly a very autobiographical one for Jesus as he neared the end of his public ministry when he would experience the fate of the rejected son, be arrested, tortured and killed at the hands of the Jewish Leaders who did not welcome Jesus as a prophet from God.
What kind of a world is Jesus inviting us to imagine in this parable? While many of Jesus’ parables open vistas into Jesus’ Kingdom Dream not yet realized, this darker parable underscores some of the bleak realities that must first be exposed and resisted before Jesus’ Kingdom realities can take root.
Jesus invites us to….
Imagine a world where most of what we have is ultimately a gracious gift from God. The landowner has done all the heavy lifting planting, constructing a wall, digging a winepress and building a watchtower. How often do we stop and just acknowledge that our very life is a gift that we didn’t do anything to deserve?
Imagine a world where we are given a holy responsibility and are expected to steward well what we’ve been given charge over. We can look down our noses at the leaders of Israel — the Scribes, Pharisees, Chief priests, etc. — who Jesus is mainly grilling in this story, but we soon discover we’re looking in the mirror and that we’ve all been given plot of land to tend and steward well. Back in Genesis 1-3, God planted a garden where our first divine-image bearing parents were placed and given charge: “Be fruitful and multiple.” This is our human vocation, our creational mandate, given to all human beings by God. This leads to a dark tendency in fallen human nature.
Imagine a world where greed and selfishness too often distort our stewardship role and lead us to think all this is actually mine to do with as I please. Those who are blessed with good health and strong work ethic, soon grow prideful and conclude, “I worked hard for this and I earned it.” We live in a world where we’re still competing over turf, protecting what we think is ours even by violent means if necessary. Just watch the evening news for daily reminders of violent acts being committed to get or protect what people think is theirs. We hoard, store up, hold our stuff we clenched fists and iron grip.
Imagine a world where we too often resist messengers and reminders that confront our greedy and selfishness tendencies. Our blood boils and we grow defensive when someone — say, a preacher — dares call us on our materialistic tendencies. We deafen our ears to the innumerable warnings in Scripture against neglecting the poor while taking care of number one. We even hear this parable and conclude, “Those wicked tenants! What were they thinking?” not realizing that we too are merely workers in a different part of God’s vineyard and we’ve been holding out on the landowner as well. Every Sunday in worship we collect an offering, and I always remind us that our act of giving is not only intended to “pay the bills” but also loosen the grip of money on our lives.
Imagine a world where each person will be held accountable someday. One scholar estimates that 25% of Jesus’ teachings make reference to coming Judgment. Jesus invites his hearers, then and now, to embrace his Kingdom perspective where a final day of reckoning is coming, when all wrongs will at last be put right and where justice will finally reign. This means evil and its perpetrators must be punished. In a culture that rejects such talk of judgment as intolerant, Kingdom people long for that day because only when evil is named and punished will “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). How does it change how we live now if we keep that future judgment always in view?
These are some of the sobering, hard-hitting themes Jesus is inviting us to ponder as we imagine his kingdom taking root in our lives and in our faith communities. One could almost write an opposite story, and call it the Parable of the Grateful Stewards where we receive our holy vocation as sheer gift and give ourselves wholeheartedly toward bearing fruit with our lives that will endure. Let’s make that the story our lives begin to tell our world.
‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’