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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

How’s Your Garden Growing?

The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, also known as the Parable of the Bad Tenants, is a parable of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 21:33–46), the Gospel of Mark (Mark 12:1–12) and the Gospel of Luke (Luke 20:9–19).

Jesus said to them “Listen to another parable” (Matthew 21:33-46, Parable of the Wicked Tenants). He could have just said, “Get ready for another confrontation between the Pharisees and me.” Regardless of what you think about the Pharisees you’ve got to give them some credit today. They got it. They understood the parable. They heard Jesus. “They realised he was talking about them.” Jesus held before them a truth they didn’t like and they wanted to put a stop to it. They wanted to arrest him.

This is neither Jesus’ first nor his last confrontation with the Pharisees. We tend to avoid those with whom we have conflict and confrontation. But not Jesus. He just keeps on coming. At every turn he is offending, aggravating, and confronting the Pharisees. He eats with the wrong people. He won’t answer their questions. He taunts them by breaking the law and healing on the Sabbath. He calls them hypocrites and blind leaders. He escapes their traps. He leaves them speechless. He rattles off a string of “woes” against them. He compares them to a disobedient son who will not work in the vineyard. They just can’t catch a break with Jesus. He never lets up.

So what’s that all about? Why can’t he just let go of them? And what does that have to do with us?

Is Jesus looking for a fight? I don’t think so. Is his primary motivation to expose and condemn those who do not follow him? I don’t think so. Is he keeping score and naming all the attitudes and behaviours of the Pharisees that he considers wrong? I don’t think so. Is Jesus trying to exclude from the kingdom of God the religious leaders of his day? I don’t think so.

Here’s what I think these confrontations are about. Jesus is unwilling to give up on the Pharisees, or anyone else for that matter. Jesus is unwilling to give up on you or me. He just keeps on coming. That is the good news, hope, and joy in that parable. This is not so much a parable of exclusion or condemnation as it is a parable of Jesus’ unwillingness to give up. His unwillingness to give up on us often confronts us with truth about our lives that is almost always difficult to hear and accept. We might hear his words but do we realise he is taking about us?

This parable and the confrontation this parable provokes are like a mirror held before us so that we might see and recognise in ourselves what Jesus sees and recognises. This is not to condemn us but to recover us from the places of our self-exclusion, to call us back to life, and to lead us home.

Jesus doesn’t exclude us or anyone else from the kingdom of God. He doesn’t have to. We do it to ourselves and we’re pretty good at it. That’s what the Pharisees have done. The Pharisees have excluded themselves.

“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you,” Jesus says to them. This is not so much a punishment for failing to produce kingdom fruits. It is, rather, the recognition of what already is. They were given the vineyard and failed to produce and share the fruits of the kingdom. Jesus is just naming the reality, the truth. They have excluded themselves. In the same way, the kingdom of God will be given to those who are already producing kingdom fruits. This is not a reward but a recognition of what already is. Where the fruit is, there also is the kingdom.

If you want to know what the fruits of the kingdom look like then look at the life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. What do you see? Love, intimacy, mercy and forgiveness, justice, generosity, compassion, presence, wisdom, truth, healing, reconciliation, self-surrender, joy, thanksgiving, peace, obedience, humility. I’m not talking about these things as abstract ideas but as lived realities in the vineyards of our lives.

We’ve all been given vineyards. They are the people, relationships, circumstances and events of our lives that God has entrusted to our care. That means our spouse and marriage, children and family, our work, our church, our daily decisions and choices, our hopes, dreams, and concerns are the vineyards in which we are to reveal the presence and life of God, to produce the fruits of the kingdom. The vineyards, our work in those vineyards, and the fruit produced come together to show us to be sharers in God’s kingdom; or not.

To the degree we are not producing kingdom fruits we have excluded ourselves from and rejected our share in the kingdom. We are living neither as the people God knows us to be nor as the people we truly want to be. In some way we have stepped outside of ourselves and sidestepped our own life. That’s the truth with which Jesus confronted the Pharisees. It’s the same truth with which Jesus confronts us.

How does that happen? What does self-exclusion look like? Here’s what I’m wondering.

  • Do you ever struggle with perfectionism, self-condemnation, and the question of whether you’re enough? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • Do you ever feel like you have to be in control, be right, have all the answers? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • Are you carrying grudges, anger, resentment? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • Do you look at others and begin making judgments about their belief, choices, or lifestyle? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • Are there people in your life that you have chosen to let go of rather than do the work of reconciliation and heal the relationship? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • Do you go through life on auto-pilot, going through the motions but never really being present, never showing up? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • In your life is there more criticism and cynicism than thanksgiving and celebration? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

  • Are you hanging onto some old guilt that you believe could not be forgiven? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.

The antidote to our self-exclusion from God’s kingdom begins with first recognising that self-exclusion. That means we must look at the vineyards of our lives. So, how’s your garden growing? What do you see? Is there fruit? Is there life? Are you sharing in God’s kingdom?

The vineyard was all set, ready to flourish with all the potential to produce wonderful fruit and an abundant supply of wine for rejoicing! The fence, which was presumably to keep the fruit secure, appears to have been turned into a sort of exclusion zone by the tenants. Even if there weren’t any visible keep out signs, those inside the vineyard were quite clearly busy protecting their own interests. They are happy to resort to aggression and violence to keep things as they are.

The vineyard had become an exclusion zone, instead of a place of fertility and productivity.

So? Was God angered or deeply saddened by their acts of exclusion? The keeping out of others? The refusal to allow the vineyard to fully flourish? The instincts and choices they made which brought about their own expulsion from this sort of second garden of Eden?

If the Kingdom of God bears fruit, as modelled through the life of Jesus Christ, then all the hallmarks of his ministry and his radical love will be seen in our own enactment and participation in the life of the Kingdom as we seek to follow Christ’s example.

Think of all the beautiful enactments of hope and love, healing and inclusion that Jesus revealed in his life and ministry: hospitality and welcome to the stranger and the outcast, a generosity to the poor, compassion towards the vulnerable, healing and reconciliation, a passion for justice, and ultimately total self-surrender to the rule of love.

On the flip side, I wonder in what ways we throw ourselves out of this Kingdom? Self-exclusion would be about walking in the opposite direction, rejecting the teachings of Christ and putting up barriers to keep God’s love out. Essentially it is about that tendency to smallness of heart: The mistrust of strangers, apathy towards the plight of the needy, complacency about the vulnerable, a lack of fruitfulness and joy.

to take Jesus seriously was to enter a strange alarming life, to abandon habits, to control instincts and impulses, … is it any wonder that to this day this Galilean is too much for our small hearts?

But the Good news we see in the story of the wicked tenants is the way God persistently keeps on coming back over and over again, battering our hearts with love and forgiveness, longing for us to embrace the Kingdom of God, willing us to produce even one little fruit bud.

“For God so loved the world that he sent his Son…..”

He came for us all – the lovely and the unlovely, the rich and the poor, the sinner and the small hearted. The weak and the strong. Especially he came to the last and the least and the lost.

It is openness to the truth and the enactment of goodness and love that transforms the frogs and the Cinderella's in those fairy tales. The parable invites us to approach the throne of God’s grace, …to come before the one unto whom all hearts are open all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.

Jesus the rejected one becomes the cornerstone on which we build our lives.

We celebrate that every time in the Eucharist in broken bread and wine outpoured. Christ with us and in us, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Bread and wine into the sacrament of God’s grace and presence, transforming our ordinary lives and sending us out to do extraordinary things…. to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

As we ponder that tendency to exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of God and the narrowness of heart that rejects the possibility of truth revealed in the unexpected, let us be on the lookout for the frogs and the Cinderella's in our midst.


The Gospel of Matthew :Volume 2 - William Barclay

Encounters with Jesus - Timothy Keller

Life Lessons From Matthew - Max Lucado

Michael Marsh Blog

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants: An Inquiry Into Parable Interpretation - Klyne Snodgrass

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