Come, Let Us Kill Him

October 7, 2014

This is the transcript of my sermon given at Free Community Church on 5 October 2014. The Scripture passage is Matthew 21:33-46. The transcript is also available on Facebook and on Free Community Church’s website. The video may be watched on Vimeo.

Brothers and sisters –

It has already been half a year since I last spoke to you. How time flies! A lot has happened in my journey of faith and, no doubt, in your journey of faith and in the life of this church.

I must thank your pastor Rev Miak Siew for making sure that I come down again to be with you and to share with you. He wrote to me quite soon after my last visit, and I was very moved by both his trust and confidence in me and the openness of your pulpit.

I remember this church fondly: you are dynamic, spontaneous, thoughtful, and serious about what matters. Above all, you travel light. I don’t just mean in physical, collective terms but also internally, individually. All Christians should be travelling light. Did Jesus not give us just two commandments to follow, telling us to love God and to love our neighbours? This is why he could say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:28, 30).

The last time I was here, I showed you my very first Bible after I became a Christian at fourteen. If you remember, it was a red KJV or rather KCV, Kiam-Chye Version. Here is my Chinese Bible, from the 1980s. It, too, has a story: all my Bibles have stories.

Being schooled in ACS, my Chinese was in lamentable shape, and so, at Junior College, I ended up in the bottom Chinese class. My teacher’s intense immersion plan then was to have us choose our own Chinese books to read and to give verbal reviews in class.

So I came up with the brilliant, lazy idea of getting a Chinese Bible. When my teacher asked me the first time “俐瑞, 你读什么书? (Li Sui, what book did you read?)”, I said “我读马太福音 (I read the Gospel of Matthew)” and proceeded to give a synopsis. When she asked me a fortnight later “俐瑞, 你读什么书?”, I said “我读马可福音 (I read the Gospel of Mark)” and then gave a synopsis…

Basically, it went on like this, and I got to tell the story of Jesus to my class four times. You may consider this my Crossover Project. My Chinese did not see miracles though.

Today’s scripture passage is a gruesome parable and a major one since it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is further found in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Except for some slight variations, through all its renderings, the gist of what is known as the Parable of the EvilTenants remains the same.

A man planted a vineyard, let it out to tenants, and then moved to another country. When harvest time came, he sent servants to collect his share of the crop, but, each time he did so, his servants were either physically abused or killed by the tenants. At last, the man sent his own beloved son to confront the tenants, but, recognising who he was, they chose to murder him. The grieving man therefore had the evil tenants eliminated before letting out the vineyard again to new tenants.

As Christians, we all know the familiar interpretation of this parable or can see at once what it parallels. We see in this the coming of the New Covenant, the passing of the old to the new. All characters and their actions have their respective allegorical meanings, and each finds its correspondence to a point in the narrative of how God went seemingly from being vengeful to being loving, moved His favour from a community of Law to a community of Grace.

But what else can this strangely tragic parable be about since, as a story, it tends to make us feel so much more?

I must confess to you now: the parable troubles me greatly. This fact was not something I was willing to acknowledge when I first considered it for our scripture passage. However, as I sat down a few times this week to prepare my sharing, I found that my mind drew a blank. As late as the wee hours of this morning, when I had to force myself to think through this parable, my spirit convulsed.

So earlier, instead of making myself write more, I turned within to try to understand why I was reacting so badly. It was then that I realised what should have been obvious to me from the start.

Read this parable again and look at the contours of the social world depicted in it. For a medium-length parable, the story is actually very vivid and precise in the dramatic scenario we are asked to engage. For a parable, the dilemma in question is both practical and believable. You can call to mind instantly those newspaper stories about plots to defraud others of what they have.

But note how more horrific and degenerate the vision of social reality here is! It must be, from what I can think of, the most devastating and most violent of the stories Jesus had told. It pans out like old English Jacobean drama, the kind where everyone is hurt and loses.

I like to use much of my sermon to highlight seven brutal aspects I observe in this story or, more specifically, the telling of the story. See if you can find similarities in real life to the experience of some of these aspects.

First, of the three Biblical versions of the parable, Luke’s take is alone in mentioning the man’s work on the vineyard only. Both Matthew and Mark are, however, careful to make clear the extent of the man’s attachment and contribution to his own property. They detail the expanse of the man’s work: he did not just plant the vineyard but also set a hedge around it to protect is from wild creatures. He went on to dig a pit for the winepress and then build a watchtower. It was a lot of work, and the enormous toil and sacrifice the man put in is a useful story point because it gives us a deeper sense of the wrong that would be done to him subsequently. We are set up to feel his pain, so to speak.

Second, if the man had given a lot of himself to his land, the tenants are shown, in reverse, to be exceptionally evil. What the tenants did was to seize someone else’s possession illegally, but our greater horror is in how they dared to do so openly, fearlessly, andarrogantly – in the normal course of their day-to-day work. They did not just fail to honour their agreement with the man and offer what they owed. The narrative reveals what they had always held in their hearts as they went further to want and to take by bullying what was not theirs to have. They had no qualm about it!

Third, on top of this implicit personal and social wrong of daylight robbery, violence thrives in the way the tenants treated rightful requests and the people who came with them. Indeed, the escalation of violence is itself part of the narrative effect: it is meant to make us feel more and more shocked and outraged.

You may find it noteworthy that the various versions can be read for skills each Gospel writer shows in telling a gripping story. Luke speaks of how the tenants beat two servants and wounded a third, but Mark describes how they beat the first servant, wounded the head of a second, and killed a third before beating and killing more for an undefined number of times. Matthew thinks on the scale of a Hollywood flick: he had the man send a group of servants to confront the tenants, and, when these were trounced, he sent an even bigger group…

All these must culminate in what is most shockingly audacious, the murder of the man’s beloved son by the tenants. This is my fourth observation of brutality: the killing of the man’s heir is itself a radical extension of or development from thievery, a stealing of another’s birthright through murder, an act of bloodied usurpation. “Come, let us kill him and take his inheritance,” they said.

Five – and here is where it gets interesting – in this bleak world, we actually observe a sense that the goodness of the man is almost held hostage by the evil of his tenants. Until the point when his son’s death cries out for decisive action, the man seems rather powerless. He seems – for a man of influence – weak. He was only able or willing to send emissaries to re-assert the terms of their agreement that had been rejected defiantly and repeatedly. What was good, the right thing to do, on grounds of the civility of kindness or perhaps a state of denial, appears weak.

Six, when the man finally acted, his brand of justice was harrowing, frighteningly radical. It was total. The man had the tenants utterly destroyed, and then he started again, afresh, with new tenants. There was no room for negotiation as if to acknowledge that, while his justice was slow, the wrong done had not been lightened by time. In fact, the wrong done was accumulative and, as such, by the end, beyond what was done to him only to include what was done to all who had suffered. The man, in his despair, chose to wipe clean the slate and, by securing new tenants, return us, as it were, to the start of the parable.

My last point is possibly one that is easiest to miss: there is, in fact, a potential of circularityin the story. We simply do not know if the new tenants would be any better than the old tenants, and we are nowhere asked to make this assumption. We are not asked to celebrate the qualities of the new tenants over the qualities of the old tenants. We are only led to be convinced that, for their wilful stubbornness and their violent and destructive ways, the old tenants had to go.

This last point is crucial because, if we read in the way the conventional interpretation of this parable tells us and see in it the passing of God’s blessing from Jews to Christians, from “Them” to “Us”, that is, if we see the parable as about a judgement on “Them”, then we may have missed its point. We may well have missed how “We” are potentially now as “They” are: “We” may very well be found wanting of failing to be honest in our accounts with God.

As you see by now, the Parable of the Evil Tenants paints an extremely dark world. In ths world, the question of whether there is evil is never in doubt. There is evil, and it comes from what humans do. The central sin is greed, self-centredness, represented in an unwillingness to give back to God and to others what we are only custodians of. It is represented in our failure to honour our social contract, to treat others rightly, responsibly, and our resort to using unethical means as people of God.

I must stress that this parable, in all its account of evil, importantly does not involve non-believers. The evildoers are all servants of God. In the face of injustice practised by believers, the climate of violence must intensify. Divine good gets stalled and seems to be ineffective.

But the parable does give us hope and show us that our God is a God of justice even if it seems that He cannot act for Himself now. God’s slowness, as suggested in the parable, is not an indication of His own powerlessness or His lack of interest but is itself proof of the extent of His mercy towards wrongdoers.

To be sure, in our emotional engagement with this story, the point that God will indeed make evil pay does not feel like a main one. It functions more like a deux ex machina, a plot device to bring a seemingly hopeless development to a satisfying closure. The focus is more on how His people have to operate justly and not sneakily, selfishly, cruelly, or violently. His people are called to act right in spite of themselves as individuals with needs and wants.

Indeed, the Parable of the Evil Tenants is really the second of two parables Jesus related to the chief priests and elders who questioned his authority in Matthew 21. The first parable is the so-called Parable of the Two Sons. In this parable, a man told his two sons to go work in the vineyard: note again the similar setting of a vineyard. One son said that he would not to his father, but, after some deliberation, he went to work. The other son said that he would work and then, in private, chose not to.

Jesus did not wait long after asking his rhetorical question of which son was obedient to give his answer straight: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you!” (Matthew 21:31). He meant to warn that the crux was not to appear right before others but to repent and do right on your own however you appear, whatever the state of your life is.

There are two states of being: one is to be humble, and the other is to be self-righteous. One is to obey God, and the other is to appear to be obeying God. So, by extension, the tenants in our parable, the second parable, were showing a form of self-righteousness in relation to the man, and that was expressed in violence. Self-righteousness is a form of violence towards God. It is a failure to give back to God and thus a way that kills Jesus.

Of course, I am exploring all these meanings on top of the standard understanding of the Parable of the Evil Tenants. The common understanding is an eschatological one, that is, one that reads the narrative in relation to the Christian schedule of events in the history of salvation. I do not want to dismiss this significance of an allegory of the progress into the Good News.

But, even here, in this common reading, there is something more in its treatment that allows us, as the people of the New Covenant, to be flipped back from the fringe of the story into its heart. I want to show you how this happens as a way to conclude.

The standard interpretation says that the parable is a reference to the historical situation of the nation of Israel before God. God is the man, and the chief priests and elders of Israel are the tenants who worked in His vineyard. The vineyard refers to Israel or, more generally, to God’s special covenant with a chosen people, the place and responsibility these have in the world. The vineyard’s produce ought to have been shared or linked back to God. But the prophets whom God sent to remind the religious and social leaders were tortured and abused instead. At last, God sent Jesus, and they murdered him.

Here, we note an internal oddity in storytelling. At this point in the life of Jesus, nobody but Jesus knew the mystery of his pivotal death yet. We know that a parable is more than an allegory; it is essentially a riddle, a special kind. We are already told this, earlier in Matthew 13, by Jesus himself when his disciples queried him about why he spoke in parables. Jesus said that “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” was meant only to his followers and not the masses, and so he had to teach in parables. This was so that, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matthew 13:13).

Yet, here, near the end of his ministry, in the temple courts, Jesus had allowed an exception to the rule. For the first time, we are told that, upon hearing his parables, the chief priests and elders understood at once what Jesus was referring to. They knew that he was speaking about them, about what they did and what would do. They, who ought not to see, saw and, who ought not to hear, heard!

These leaders had not killed Jesus yet, and they nonetheless knew that it was they who were being named as killers. It was as though they had already killed him – or rather, more plausibly, they knew at this point what they had wanted all along. They wanted God dead.

In this moment, when the non-disciples could become disciple-like in gaining access to “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”, we have a key subversion or inversion of what we understood all along. You see, we seem to be warned that it does not matter if we understand Jesus’s parables, their conventional meanings and all. This need not have to prove that we are His followers or not. Even the chief priests and elders, those who were anti-Jesus, could achieve understanding.

What matters must be personal, and its question is this: have you, in your daily actions, in your every thought, and in your ways, chosen to honour God? Or do you, in the secrecy of your choices, seek your own good and say to yourself “Come, let me kill Him”?

Now let us pray.

Dear Father God, we remember the haunting words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you!” Bestow on us the worthlessness and wretchedness of those others despise and others reject. Help us to learn from them the godliness of answering only to You, knowing how You feel about us and want from us.

Help us to see what you see and not what society sees. Help us to want what you want and not what society wants. Help us to stand with invisible justice and unwanted love, holding in our hearts that faith that, one day, these ways that are Yours will prevail.

In Jesus’s name we pray,
Amen.

Gwee Li Sui

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