A Man Unlike God

Isaiah 5:1-2

Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill. 
2 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. 

Matthew 21:33-46

‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner [ἀνθρωπος … οἰκοδεσπότης] 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. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner [ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος ] of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They 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.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone; [Ps 118:21-23]
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

A Beginning
A visiting scholar spoke one afternoon during my first months at theological college. I understood little of what he said, but  remember clearly the nit-picking response of some of us whom he had discomforted. With some frustration he pointed out to us that no theology is able to fit all the pieces into the puzzle; there will always be spaces we cannot fill, and there will always be pieces left over. The art of theology lies in which pieces you find it critical to fit in to your picture.

I have pieces over, and I have gaps. Indeed, forty years a Christian, I sometimes feel as if I still have more puzzle pieces in the lid of the box than on the table!

Where we are in Matthew highlights some of the difficult puzzle pieces. We can say of Isaiah 5 (which Jesus quotes) that in Isaiah's still growing understanding these words about God made sense.

Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
   and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them;
   the mountains quaked,
and their corpses were like refuse
   in the streets.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
   and his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 5:25)

However, it was not God who did this killing, we may say. Although some folk have no trouble imagining such violence done by God, we understand that God never wills this, or does this. Isaiah's text  was an interpretation of a national tragedy coming from a still growing appreciation that God is love, only love (1 John 4:7-12 cf Isaiah 43:4 Because you are precious in my sight,  and honoured, and I love you , I give people in return for you,  nations in exchange for your life.)  In Isaiah we are seeing revelation in action as people's understanding of God is deepened.

The difficult piece of the puzzle we find in our hand is the one where Jesus appears to have the same idea of God's punishment of the wicked as Isaiah had. It is all very well to make some wiggle room by placing the words of judgement on the lips of the Priests and Pharisees; in Mathew it is they who say " He will put those wretches to a miserable death" but in Mark, the same words are on the lips of Jesus. (Mark 12:1-12)

This can plunge us into deep waters as we wonder just what distinguished Jesus from his peers. Did he also think God would punish and destroy?  If not, what do we make of the texts where it appears he says God will punish and destroy? What happened between Jesus and the writing of 1 John? And if even the author of 1 John thought that God would punish and destroy, how could it then be that he says "that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" and that God is love? (1 John 1:5, 4:8)

The simplistic answer to all this is to say that the text is obvious:  Jesus said it, game over. "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:46) 

We must take seriously what the texts say, or we risk only imagining Jesus and God in our own image; that is, we will read our concerns into the text. However, it is simplistic to think we simply read a text. We bring a host of assumptions across several languages, and multiple cultures, as we sit to read the biblical text. A moment's reflection will remind us how often we have heard in the words of our beloved partner, the exact opposite of what was meant. How much more then, might we hear the exact opposite in the words of the beloved Jesus?

What gives us some protection from these mis-hearings is to face the deep questioning and upheaval that follows wondering if we are approaching the image of Jesus with the wrong assumptions. In the time between Isaiah and 1 John—  indeed, down until our own time— it could seem that nothing has changed: We are a violent species. We solve our disagreements by the imposition of force. Yet everything has changed between Isaiah 5 and 1 John 4, because there God is love; God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

Is it the case that Jesus did not understand this and 1 John did, or is it the case that Jesus did understand God without violence, and that we misunderstand his words? That is, we see violence from God  when, in his own mind, Jesus is talking about something else.

During the week, something like these words popped up in my Facebook feed: "We do not read the bible. The bible reads us." Does this mean that we read Jesus as preaching a violent God because that is what we bring to the text? Might it be that in such parables Jesus is slowly subverting the apocalyptic reading of life that climaxes in a huge violent reset of the universe by God, where the Christians are vindicated? (This is a major thesis of James Alison's book Raising Abel.)

When I ask these questions, I end up with the reading below.

Looking at the Text
We read God into this parable too easily. The Greek is clear that there was ἄνθρωπος … οἰκοδεσπότης … a man… a landowner1.  There was a man. We are not meant to read the text as an allegory where the man is a thinly disguised stand-in for God. The man was rich, a tenanted landowner, an absentee landlord who Israel would not see as God-like. This landowner is the rich acquisitive overlord who has tenants, not vines that he loves and nurtures. There was an industrialist who set up his factory in Bangladesh,  and then went home to New York… Would you use such a story to invite people to think of God!?

The impact of Jesus' story is enormous because: "a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son." (Raymund SchwagerJesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 135-136, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein.) If we do not come to the story as an allegory (a 1:1 correspondence between God and the landowner) then we are amazed. What kind of man would be like this!? But, of course, this "comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son [this goodness] is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed." The landowner, amazing man though he is, is just one of us, after all.

We also read into the story the idea that it is about the rejection of Jewish people by God. In the verses quoted by Jesus from Isaiah, the vines are clearly a symbol of the nation.

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!

But in the story, the problem is not with the vines. There is no hint that there is anything wrong with the harvest.  The problem is with the tenants. The tenants are emphasised in this story. They are called tenants, in the Greek text,  six times. Compare this with the way, across the  gospels , how often the NRSV's footnotes change the third person he into Jesus to clarify  the sense of the text. Here the third person they is barely used of the tenants;  tenanthood is being emphasised because the parable is directed against the keepers of the vines, the tenants, the religious authorities, and not against the vines.

The story is being told by Jesus in a conversation where the "the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’" (Matthew 21:23) It is not only the case that (as one commentary said) Jesus does finally answer their question about authority, but that the story is being told as he teaches and heals the people of Israel in the temple.

We can only find the rejection of the Jewish people in this text if we bring it to the text as a preconceived notion.

If we come without the preconception that the landowner is God, then we can see that the landowner is contrasted to God. The authorities say about the landowner, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death."

In the Greek this is κακοὺς κακῶς ἀπολέσει αὐτούς, which Mark D Davis translates as "Evil ones he will destroy them evilly," although the word order is evil evilly he will destroy them.  Is this not is a statement of the Myth of Redemptive Violence?  It is the way of the world, and Matthew takes the telling of the parable by Mark and puts this part of the story squarely in the mouths of the authorities who themselves rule by redemptive violence. (Mark 12:1–12)

When we subscribe to or are captured by the myth of redemptive violence, we automatically ascribe the violence of the landowner to God, whereas what Jesus ascribes to God is something completely different.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone; [Ps 118:21-23]
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

God restores the victim of violence. The victim becomes central. The victim is the head of the corner, the thing that holds everything else together. " … all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure." (Wikipedia)

There is a terrible warning here. One of the servants is stoned. (21:35) The authorities will also be stoned. Violence breeds violence; it does not redeem.

43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls … the chief priests and the Pharisees …  realized that he was speaking about them. 

The rivalry for power, the envy of the vineyard and the desire to be like the owner, leads to the destruction of the tenants. They "fall on the stone" of the owner. The religious authorities are heading towards the same fall in their rivalry with God. Yet in this disastrous situation, where the authorities' rivalry with God is writ large in the conversation, Jesus' words are startlingly free of violence!

In the story of the two sons, (21:28-32)  he said only that  the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you The authorities  were not rejected out of  hand; it is not ruled out that they, too, may enter! Here it is said only that 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 the stone will be crushed, but they do the stumbling. The stone is the sign of mercy, not vengeance.

The stone falls on them, but it is left open to decide who has cast the stone. The stone is indeed deadly, but is the stone tipped upon them by God, or do they judge themselves? What we see in the story is that God sends mercy.

Have you ever wondered why the owner of the vineyard sent his son at all? He had two groups of servants abused and even killed. Why risk your son? I would have sent an army! Wouldn’t you?2   (Paul Nuechterlein)

You have to be in the mindset of violence, as we too often almost ineluctably are, to see violence by God in all this. (Just as you have to be in the mindset of antisemitism to see the rejection of the Jewish people in this tale.) It is a tale of mercy, of giving. If even a rich conniving landowner can send his son in this situation, how much more generous and forgiving is God?

But the tenants, with their minds set on their own power, determined to own the vineyard for themselves, refuse mercy. If the mercy of God shows us the way to life, to healing, how can we expect that going in the opposite direction will not do us harm… and none of that harm will be God's doing.

A man appeared in a desert town some years ago, determined to walk across the Simpson Desert possessing only a rifle. The locals sought to dissuade him. There is no water. The local policeman counselled him against his adventure. He ignored them all, and went into the desert, which killed him. Violence is a desert. It destroys us. If we insist on walking into this desert, is it God who kills us, or are we killed by our own refusal to listen?

Reading for this essay, I came across some words of Thomas Merton.

“Every man (sic) becomes the image of the God he adores.
He whose worship is directed to a dead thing becomes dead.
He who loves corruption rots.
He who loves a shadow becomes, himself, a shadow. 
He who loves things that must perish lives in dread of their perishing.” (Thomas Merton No Man Is an Island   pp235 Goodreads, or more fully  Google Books)

We could add that the one whose worship is directed to a violent God becomes violent... and will be crushed by violence.

Andrew Prior (2017)
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!

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 21:33-45 - The Wicked Tenants

 

  1. Paul Nuechterlein: The this is the third of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:
  • 18:23: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35)
  • 20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē — “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16)
  • 21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs — “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
  • 22:2: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14)

Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this householder should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This would be most crucial for the fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious (see Proper 23A). I have come to frame Matthew’s Gospel as a encounter between God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” and human kingdoms.

2. From a sermon by Paul Nuechterlein

Have you ever wondered why the owner of the vineyard sent his son at all? He had two groups of servants abused and even killed. Why risk your son? I would have sent an army! Wouldn’t you? Throw those bums out! Give ’em what’s coming to them! Jesus even gets the Jewish authorities to say that. He asks them what the owner of the vineyard should so, and they give the answer that all of us would give, based on our usual way of handling authority. ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death,’ they say. Right! You don’t pussy-foot around with petty dictators. You throw them out! You give them a taste of their own medicine! But notice that Jesus never gives this answer, nor supports it. Rather, he quotes psalm 118: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.’ Yes, Lord, it is amazing. You didn’t send an army to crush the infidels; instead, you sent your son to die, and then raised him. You raised him up to new life to offer us the same new life. Help us to understand this kind of authority and power, one which gives life instead of taking it. Help us to live it.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill. 
2 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. 
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
   and people of Judah,
judge between me
   and my vineyard. 
4 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? 
5 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. 
6 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. 
7 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!

Psalm 118

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
   his steadfast love endures for ever! 
2 Let Israel say,
   ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’ 
3 Let the house of Aaron say,
   ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’ 
4 Let those who fear the Lord say,
   ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’ 
5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
   the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. 
6 With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
   What can mortals do to me? 
7 The Lord is on my side to help me;
   I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. 
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
   than to put confidence in mortals. 
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
   than to put confidence in princes. 
10 All nations surrounded me;
   in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 
11 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
   in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 
12 They surrounded me like bees;
   they blazed like a fire of thorns;
   in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 
13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
   but the Lord helped me. 
14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
   he has become my salvation. 
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; 
16   the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
   the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.’ 
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the Lord. 
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
   but he did not give me over to death. 
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to the Lord. 
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
   the righteous shall enter through it. 
21 I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation. 
22 The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone. 
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
   it is marvellous in our eyes. 
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it. 
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
   O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! 
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
   We bless you from the house of the Lord. 
27 The Lord is God,
   and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
   up to the horns of the altar. 
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
   you are my God, I will extol you. 
29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.


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