Jesus’ teaching, especially in His parables, often challenges us. Sometimes the challenge comes from difficulty understanding. The disciples heard Him teach with a parable and they did not get it, so they asked Him to explain what He meant. Other parables present a different challenge. Sometimes everyone understood what He meant—and that was the problem. The challenge consisted in accepting what He said.
The parable for this Sunday is an instance of the latter. The original hearers of this parable understood what Jesus was saying. The chief priests and the Pharisees recognized He was speaking against them. They knew He was comparing them to the wicked tenants, and He was warning them that the Kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to another people. This did not sit well with them. But for fear of the crowds, they did not act… not yet at least.
As you consider preaching a sermon on this text, there are a few things to notice from the outset. First, Jesus did not speak this parable to the people in your congregation. Your hearers are not the wicked tenants. The people who hear your sermon are the baptized children of God who have gathered in His name. In the parable, then, they are the people to whom the Kingdom has been given. This means much of what Jesus said in this parable does not apply directly to them. Second, this parable is not primarily about bearing fruit. The lectionary pairing with Isaiah 5 may not be as helpful as it first appears. Both texts use the image of a vineyard, but Isaiah is calling the people of Israel to be fruitful whereas Jesus is describing His reception. The mention of “people producing fruit” (verse 43) is not a call to do good works, but rather a description of the type of people to whom the Kingdom will be given. Third, this parable followed shortly after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In a few days, the religious leaders would take Jesus out of the city and kill Him. It seems clear Jesus had His own death in mind when He spoke of the master’s son being taken, thrown out of the city, and killed.
The mention of “people producing fruit” (verse 43) is not a call to do good works, but rather a description of the type of people to whom the Kingdom will be given.
With those thoughts in mind, how might you use this text to preach a Christian sermon today? One approach would be to do what the parable does. You could use this parable to retell the larger biblical narrative. Such a sermon might resemble some of the apostolic preaching in Acts (see 2:14–36; 3:12–4.4; 7:2–53; 10:34–43; 13:16–48; and 17:22–31). The apostles often retold the larger narrative as a way of framing who Jesus is and where their hearers fit into the story. In many cases, they followed this parable by proclaiming Jesus’ death as the result of His own people’s rejection of Him (this is a different way of proclaiming Jesus’ death than Paul’s language in Romans 3:25 about His death as a propitiation for sins). Jesus came in a long line of prophets who called the people of God to repentance. Like them, He came to His own people. Also like them, they received Him not. Jesus was more than a prophet, of course, which became clear in His resurrection from the dead. On the third day, God vindicated Him as the true Son and Lord over all, and proceeded to give the Kingdom to all who, by faith, would trust in the resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus.
If you take this approach to the sermon, you over-arching goal would be to help your hearers recognize their place in the biblical narrative. Contrary to common American Christian thinking, you would emphasize the individual is not the center of the biblical narrative. Christianity is not primarily about me and my relationship with Jesus. The implications of this are many, of course. But the main idea you would drive toward is how the individual Christian is part of the people to whom the Kingdom of God has been given. That is the Gospel promise you get to proclaim. Your hearers have been given the Kingdom of God—forgiveness, life, and salvation—through faith in Jesus. He who was rejected has become our cornerstone, and this is marvelous in our eyes (Psalm 118:22-23). We, who were not among His chosen people, have become recipients of God’s grace and participants in His Kingdom.
We, who were not among His chosen people, have become recipients of God’s grace and participants in His Kingdom.
As people who have received the Kingdom, we have become productive and fruitful in His service. This is not because we have power to produce fruit in and of ourselves, but because God has seen fit to work in and through us. Therefore, in addition to proclaiming the promise of Christ clearly and directly, you might spend some time in the sermon opening your hearers’ eyes to the fruitful service of people in your congregation. Rather than searching for extremes, describe some of the mundane, everyday acts of Christian love and generosity that characterize faithful Christians living according to their vocations. These examples are not our source of hope, for our hope is only in Jesus and His resurrection. But the fruitfulness of God’s people is reason for celebration, encouragement, and thanksgiving for the work God is doing among us in Christ. It also offers images of fruitfulness for them to emulate in their own Christian life.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 21:33-46.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 21:33-46
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 21:33-46