He had everything meticulously planned.
A room on the 32nd floor at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas that offered optimum shooting range.
A cache of 23 weapons.
Thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Cameras set up inside his hotel suite and in the hallway.
12 rifles outfitted with a device called a bump-fire stock, which enables the shooter to fire bullets similar to an automatic rifle.
He had purchased 33 weapons this past year, raising no red flags, as he planned for this nefarious day.
How did a retired accountant, a wealthy property owner, an avid gambler, turn mass murderer – Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people and injured 500 last Sunday.
We turn to the gospel of Matthew today which poses a similar question: How do law-abiding religious leaders become agents of death? How do obnoxious tenants cross the line and also become mass murderers?
Jesus also lived in a violent world, and today’s passage reflects that violence. This is the second of three parables that Jesus tells in the Temple, in the presence of the scribes and Pharisees, in the last week before he is killed in Jerusalem. During this time, the leaders questioned Jesus’s authority, trying to trap him so they can kill him as we heard in the passage last week. Today’s parable describes a Father who sends his Son to the vineyard, with dire consequences. In this parable, Jesus predicts his death at the hands of the wicked tenants, who represent the Jewish leaders.
Jesus describes a state-of-the art vineyard. It has a protective fence around it, its own winepress and a Watchtower. A newly planted vineyard typically bears fruit in three years. When the fruit is ready, it is time for the tenants to pay the landowner his portion of the harvest. This is what the landowner, who lives in another land, assumes. This is how it is done. However, the wicked tenants have other things in mind.
The wicked tenants plot to take over the vineyard. They beat, stone and kill the first set of slaves sent to gather the landowner’s portion. They do the same to the second group of even more slaves sent to gather the portion. The tenants don’t attempt to communicate with the landowner. They don’t show the expected deference or obedience. We don’t even know the motives until the son of the landowner comes and the tenants first speak in this parable: ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”
Greed leads the tenants down this dark path, believing they can claim what isn’t theirs. Ironically, the Father doesn’t send armed soldiers in with the Son to protect him, even though he knows the fate of all the slaves he sent. The Son himself doesn’t carry a weapon. The Father still wants to trust in the good will of these renegade tenants. Yet the worst happens. The tenants grab the son, throw him out of the vineyard, and kill him.
The scribes and Pharisees would have understood perfectly the allusions Jesus made in the parable. Often in the Hebrew scriptures, the vineyard depicts the people of Israel, and the Landowner characterizes God. Listen to the prophet Isaiah:
He (God) dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isa. 5:2)
The ancient morning prayers included these verses from Psalm 80: "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land."(vv 8-9)
The Prophet Hosea taught that "Israel was a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit" (10:1). But Israel's prosperity unfortunately led to increased idolatry: "The more his fruit increased the more altars he built."
The prophet Ezekiel spoke this condemnation against the nation for its wickedness: "Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem" 15:6).
So, the ordinary Jew, as well as the teachers of the law, listening to Jesus, would understand the imagery of the vineyard as the people of Israel who beat, stoned and killed the prophets Down through the ages, God sent to restore them to faithfulness. Finally, God sent God’s own Son, but the people even reject him. The listeners of this parable would have known all this: thus they responded correctly to Jesus’s question about what the landowner shall do: “he will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.”
Who are these other tenants? They are people who believe in the Son, follow him faithfully, and therefore are able to produce the fruits of the kingdom of God in the vineyard.
Remember Jesus said, as John records, “If someone remains in me and I in him, she will bear much fruit;” (John 15:5). God wants us to “bear fruit…that will last.” (v.16). Jesus instructs his disciples, “I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser” (Jn 15:1).
In this fashion, Jesus calls us to be the Other Tenants called to work the vineyard, as we live in the Spirit of Christ and the Word, and do the good works that grow out of our faith in Christ. The Other Tenants are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection, conforms to the Old Testament pattern of God always seeking to free people from the oppression of sin, disease and injustice.
Who are Other tenants? We think of Dean McAuley, a firefighter from Seattle who in the middle of the Las Vegas shooting, stayed in harm’s way and managed to save three women, including a frightened 17 year-old Natalia, whom he saw safely to the hospital.
Who are Other Tenants? Jonathan Smith, who last Sunday led 30 people to safety before he was shot in the neck. The bullet could not be removed so it will be a reminder to him how close he came to death in the duty of protecting others. Who are Other Tenants? Dawn-Marie Gray and Kevin Gray were among the many stayed behind and acted as paramedics while bullets rained overhead. Who are Other Tenants? We think of the people of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, who won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize this past week.
Who are Other Tenants? The many people who are getting supplies to Puerto Rico, or the many Puerto Ricans who without fanfare, are helping their neighbors through the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. We think of the daily acts that don’t make the headlines, the sacrifices caregivers make. Teachers who make a difference in the lives of their students. The aid and care we give to strangers and friends. Other Tenants –who choose to be humble and let go of self-centeredness. They are forbearing and compassionate, tending the vineyard with patience and reverence.
Look to the helpers, Rev. Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, would encourage the children who listened to him. Look to the helpers in the midst of the turmoil swirling around us. If we want to see the hand of God, Look to the Other Tenants, the helpers. More importantly be a helper. Who knows whose life you will change by your faithful service? Let us be those who help at all levels in the midst of crisis. Those who toil in the vineyard with all dedication. Let us be among the Other Tenants who bear the abundant, Christ-like fruit that our justice, and love-starved world clamors for – a vineyard for all, where we can live in safety and peace. Amen