Have you ever experienced rejection in some area of your life? I suspect that there is a specific example that comes to mind at the word rejection. How did that make you feel?
As I was thinking about this, I realized that I have a really good grasp of the concept of rejection. In my single days, I certainly had my fair share of rejection by girls. I have been rejected for jobs, even when I thought I would have been great at it. Even as a pastor, I have applied for many more churches than I have actually pastored. I was once even rejected by a church that ultimately hired me as the pastor. I’m blessed with a great theological education, but I did not actually get into every degree problem that I applied for. One of the areas that I enjoy is writing and I write for both academic journals and popular magazines. While I have been published, I have also received numerous rejection notices. If I had to put together a resume of all my rejections, I would have something pretty impressive.
I know that each of us have experienced rejection in some way. Some of it we can laugh at and some of it still stings. How do we sort through this? We come at this as followers of Jesus and Jesus’ experience helps to put things in context. The parable we will be looking at will be particularly applicable to this topic.
Jesus often spoke in parables, that is stories using common images. He didn’t give theological lectures that only scholars could understand. He wanted to take spiritual truth and make it understandable to the average person. This parable is full of images that would have been very easy to understand for the original audience.
In the townhouse complex where we live, there are people who both own and rent. To be honest, I have no idea who owns and who rents. It doesn’t really matter and probably doesn’t affect the daily life of the person. It is just a matter of whether the money goes to the landlord or to pay off a mortgage.
In the ancient world, like today, there were people who owned their own land and those who rented. But it was more complicated because it was not just about where they would sleep at night. It was an agricultural economy and so there was a big difference between working your own land and being a tenant farmer who grew a crop for the landlord. Since it was difficult to own any large piece of property for the average person, they would have been familiar with tenants who were working the land. They didn’t need much imagination to catch what Jesus was saying.
Then, as like today, there are good and bad relationships between owners and tenants. The situation in this parable is bad. The owner of the vineyard sent someone to collect his share of the harvest. Owners didn’t rent to tenants just to be nice, it was expected that the owner would get back a portion of the harvest. It was his land after all. But the tenants refused and sent the messenger away. The owner sent numerous messengers and not only were they rejected, they were even beaten. This required some desperate measures. So the owner decided to send his own son. Surely they would respect the authority of his son and come into line and give what is due. Instead they beat him and kill him. The rejection is complete.
In addition to all of the images that were recognizable, the original audience would have remembered that in the Old Testament a vineyard was often a symbol of God’s people, specifically Israel. we will need to be careful how we use this in interpretation, but it is part of the picture.
Jesus doesn’t just tell stories for the sake of telling stories or for entertaining the crowds. What Jesus is sharing is the big picture of God’s relationship with his people. God has never just left us to our own devices. Time after time, God sent prophets to get us back on the straight and narrow. Remember prophets are not specifically people who predict the future but rather those who warn of the consequences of not being faithful. In the context of the parable, it is not giving to God that which is due him. Unfortunately the prophets were rejected, either by outright persecution or by ignoring them. Then it was time to do something drastic. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Jesus is God’s Son, the one who has the full authority. Now Jesus is telling this story while he is in the middle of the story and yet he already knows the outcome. Jesus will be rejected and will be killed. Just try and imagine what it was like for Jesus emotionally to tell this story. Don’t think of Jesus as being this emotionally distant superhuman. Think of him as a man with feelings, a man that will be hurt by the rejection that is inevitably coming.
Jesus was rejected and was killed some months after this parable was told. This is where we need to return to the vineyard image. Some have used this parable to teach that the Jews rejected Jesus and therefore are bad people. It is true that some Jews rejected Jesus and some were responsible for his death. But it is also true that some Jews followed Jesus and even gave their lives for him. It is also true that there were non-Jews who both persecuted and the church and who joined it. It is not about racial differences. The vineyard has been expanded and all of his are tenants of God who need to give him his due. unfortunately people still reject him.
But what does this mean to us? Most of us know the story well enough that Jesus was rejected and killed. Why do we need reminding?
As I said earlier, we have all experienced rejection of some sort in our life. sometimes that rejection is because of our faith and sometimes for other reasons. The rejection can be from strangers or from families. It is common to wonder where God is in such situations. Why would God let us be rejected? Why would we let us suffer such pain?
God as the Lord of all Creation has been rejected. Jesus, as the Son of God who came into the world to save us has been rejected. We serve a rejected Messiah. Being rejected is not a sign of God’s disapproval. If anything, being rejected brings us into closer communion with God. Jesus understands what we are going through. Jesus was rejected by family, by friends and by strangers. His rejection took him right to the cross. Jesus understands better than anyone what it means to be rejected. But Jesus won’t reject you. If you have been adopted into God’s family, you are a little brother or sister of Jesus and will not be rejected. There is hope and healing no matter what people have done to you.
Jesus told a story but not just any story. He told his story and he told it while he was still in it. In his story we see hints of our own story. There are times that all we are trying to do is be faithful and we are being rejected. Jesus knows that from experience. We should never feel abandoned or forsaken by Jesus because in our rejection we are participating in his rejection. This story gives us hope and it also challenges to not be like the ungrateful tenants. We are working the Lord’s land and we need to give to him what he requires, not out of fear but out of love and thankfulness.