The Wicked Tenants

Week of October 5 2005
Matthew 21:33-45

Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son." But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance." So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?' They said to him, ‘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.'

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:"The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes"? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.'

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

As a free standing story, Jesus parable of the bad tenants is hardly complimentary to the religious authorities! It is made unmistakeably clear that they are the bad tenants. Add a little context, and the story is even more savage. The story is not Jesus' story. It is a well known piece of verse he has lifted from the prophet Isaiah.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
Isaiah 5:1-7

It is the reason that Isaiah told this story that really insults the religious leaders. Isaiah's poem is part of an absolute condemnation of the nation of Israel. It precedes a prophecy of invasion of the land which will be the judgement of God upon the nation. The nation is especially condemned for its lack of justice.

God "expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry..."

In the Hebrew,
God expected mishpat
and saw mispach
but heard tse'aqah (the cry of the oppressed.)
(from the HarperCollins Study Bible)

So Jesus takes this story which everyone knew, and shifts the responsibility. He has already, in this little drama, defeated the authorities' attempt to question his authority, and humiliated them with the parable of the two sons. Now he says it was actually the tenants, the vineyard managers, who were the problem and the cause of judgement, and the eventual destruction of the nation.

As churches we identify ourselves with Israel. Sometimes churches even call themselves The Vineyard, instead of St. James, or Greenacres Uniting Church. So if we are Israel, the Vineyard, where do we fit in this reading? Are we a faithful remnant (eg Isa 4:2) and a fruitful vineyard? Or are we part of the problem; a vineyard that yields five gallons (one bath) of wine for the whole ten acres? (Isa 5:10)

Who are we in Jesus story? Are we faithful servants who have been rejected by the unfaithful tenants? Or are we tenants of the vineyard, full of greed who say, "This is the heir! Come let us kill him and get his inheritance?" It says those people are going to suffer a "miserable death."

As human beings we are great ones for justifying and rationalising our own position. When there is a problem we blame someone else or, in some other way, remove responsibility from ourselves. In the debate with his opponents Jesus traps them. He makes them pronounce their own judgement; "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" he asks. Under the norms of debate, they were bound to answer him.

Their anger at him comes from this humiliation in front of the people as much or more as the actual accusation that Jesus is making. It's like being caught stealing someone's coloured pencils in the classroom. "What did I say to you about stealing other people's stuff," asks the teacher. And in front of the whole class we are forced to utter our own judgement. I suspect we remember that humiliation far longer than any punishment for the deed.

I wonder how much we are placed in the position of pronouncing our own judgement. I'm reading this parable at the same time as reading Tanya Levin's book People in Glass Houses, about one of Australia's notoriously rich churches. (For reviews etc see here, and here.) Only hours ago the US Congress (the people?) have refused to rescue the greedy brokers of the financial system. The story of Jesus is placed solidly, and incontrovertibly , in the context of social justice. There have been four chapters of utter condemnation of Israel at the beginning of Isaiah. Then comes the story of the vineyard, and its ruin. So often, we want to say we have not worshipped God correctly; that we have not been faithful. I hear the echoes of a hundred sermons on personal piety; sermons all somehow lobotomising personal piety away our corporate, community responsibilities and pieties.

I am condemned already by my nice house near to the bridges under which people sleep. I am condemned by my fear and greed, which keep me from helping them, and masquerade as being so very busy, that I have no time to help. But if I claim my richness is a gift of God for my faithfulness; if I join "house to house," raising the investment rents, forcing people into the parks and under the bridges; if I "call evil good, and good evil," what hope is there for me?

Every civilisation, and every empire, has fallen away and collapsed. As we shiver in fear of global warming, and panic about global financial meltdown, only the least imaginative could not wonder if now it is our turn. Australians and U.S. Americans have a weird sense of invulnerability in all this. We really think we are "God's chosen people" who will not suffer decline and fall. We are surely seeing the warning signs as much as the people of Israel did in the times of the prophets. The causes of social disintegration are the same greed fuelled hatreds and injustices.

There is a startling claim by Matthew's Jesus in chapter twentyone. "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." Much of society rejects the cornerstone, because we, the church, have let it become buried under centuries of speculative, no longer relevant doctrine, past pieties, and old additions to the building of the church. When I arrived home last night, they were watching the popular archaeology program Time Team. Slowly the team was removing the accretion of centuries, and exposed a bearer stone- a cornerstone, if you like- that let them work out where the great hall of the manor had stood. If we strip out all the doctrine around Jesus, and all the buildings and outhouses added to the faith over the centuries, what do we find at the base of it all? Justice. Even at my most cynical times of Dawkinsian doubt, when I can see him as nothing but one more human voice, he remains a cornerstone. Without justice, we will be "broken to pieces."

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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