In Matthew 21:33-46 Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants, where a landowner rents out his vineyard to some tenant farmers who refuse to to share the harvest with the landowner, beating his servants and killing his son.
Jesus is telling the parable to the chief priests and the Pharisees, the elders of the people, and at the end asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
The eagerness with which they denounce the wicked tenants seems to me to be an indication that up until this point, they didn’t realize they were being cast in the role of the tenants. I wonder if they thought Jesus was talking about the Romans as the wicked tenants, and they had cast themselves in the role of the landowner’s servants and son (and would have had ample biblical justification for doing so).
But the parable sneaks up on them (like all good parables do!): “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom…” As the punchline went after another parable, told hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Nathan to King David, “You are the man!” However, instead of repenting in dust and ashes, as their ancestor David did, they double down on their waywardness, and look for a way to arrest him and silence him.
Repenting is easy and hard. It’s easy in the sense that all you have to do is say you were wrong. You don’t have to have any money or skill or pedigree to repent. Anyone can do it. But it’s hard in the sense that it requires that you rethink everything about how you thought the world was. It demands you actually trust in the mercy of God. To repent, you must take the risk that your life is not bound up in your status in the eyes of others, that being right isn’t how you get righteous.
You have to actually believe in the kingdom of God to repent, and it can seem pretty far-fetched to believe that we’re simply loved, and thus being wrong isn’t the worst thing that can happen. In fact, in the kingdom of God, repentance is one of the best things that could happen on a given day. The opportunity to learn that one has been wrong, and to simply apologize and go in a new direction is a freedom available to anyone.
(Also, I want to learn how to tell parables like Jesus… stories that don’t just illustrate or convey information, but get underneath and upend people’s assumptions about the way the world is and what God is like and what’s possible… Sometimes I get to do this in my preaching, but I want to do it more.)