Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

When people in authority challenged Jesus, he often responded to their challenges with a parable.

October 2, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46

When people in authority challenged Jesus, he often responded to their challenges with a parable.

If those challenging him didn’t get the first parable, he’d give them a second one. Today’s Gospel lection is just such a second parable addressed to the challenge posed by the chief priests and elders about the source of Jesus’ authority (21:23-27).

The parable begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner established a vineyard complete with a fence, a winepress, and even a watchtower. He then became an absentee landowner, returning to his own country as often happened in the far-flung territories of the Roman Empire. Tenants were in charge of overseeing the productivity of the vineyard and paying their rent to the owner at harvest time, in the form of a share of the produce. So far, so good: business was working as usual. Then everything came apart!

When the owner’s slaves arrived to collect his share of the produce, the tenants attacked them, even beating one and killing another. The owner of the vineyard then simply sent another delegation of slaves to collect the rent. Hmm… this is not normal!

Those slaves were treated even worse than the first. Surely by now the owner would send in troops or some form of armed enforcement of his rights! But no, instead he sends his son, thinking by some logic that the thugs who have abused two delegations of slaves will respect the owner’s son and heir. How foolish! In parallel folly the tenants reason that if they kill the son, they will get his inheritance. Apparently unaware of how ridiculous their notion is, they kill the son.

Are you still playing along with the parable? I hope so, because the punch line is almost here. Jesus asks his audience (the chief priests and elders), “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The answer is obvious, and the tenants offer it: “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” (verse 41).

Whether the answer is given in a gloating voice or as a lament in fear and trembling depends on where those listening see themselves — us — in the story, and therein lays the catch. The chief priests and elders probably see themselves in the role of the landowner, caught in his own merciful response to those in his charge. They would be able to actually own land, and to have others manage it for them while they were busy with their administrative tasks in Jerusalem. They would see the servants as their subordinates and themselves as the real victims of the unscrupulous tenants, and they would be ready and even eager to pronounce judgment on them.

We who are Christians, on the other hand, have tended to read the parable seeing God as the landowner and the temple leaders as the thoroughly evil tenants who are defrauding God of the rightful fruits of God’s covenant with Israel. In this allegory, the groups of servants are Israel’s prophets and Jesus is the son.

We, in turn, are the “other tenants” to whom the “vineyard” will be given after it is taken from the Jerusalem leaders who have not managed it well (Isaiah 5:1-7). Seen as an allegory of salvation history from Matthew’s perspective, even to the point of depicting Jesus, who would be crucified outside of Jerusalem, as the son who is killed outside of the vineyard, this parable becomes an opening salvo from Jesus himself, justifying our claims against the Jewish leaders and even against Judaism as a whole.

Before we buy either of the traditional readings, though, we need to step back and look at it again. Perhaps neither allegory is the best way to approach this parable.

Our confusion about how to read this parable is built into its role and place in Matthew’s Gospel. This exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is set in Jerusalem near the end of Jesus’ ministry. This final section of the Gospel before the passion narrative gazes stereo-optically at Jesus’ own life and ministry and at the church that will carry on his witness to God’s reign after Jesus’ approaching passion, death, and resurrection.

Jesus’ collision with the Jerusalem leadership is a thread running through the whole Gospel, just as the church would later be in conflict with the synagogue as both communities attempted to deal with the consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple. The arguments between them were most often not about religious practices, but about the temple leaders’ collusion with exploitative economic and social policies of the Roman Empire, and later over different ways of negotiating life under that Empire in the church and the synagogue from which it was “called out” (ekklesia).

Jesus’ citation of Psalm 118:22-23 (verse 42) does not rebut the verdict the leaders have pronounced on the tenants, but rather it refocuses the discussion. The issue is no longer the old “vineyard,” but rather a totally new structure of which Jesus himself is the “cornerstone.” That structure is God’s reign or empire, which Jesus has been proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry and which the church will continue to proclaim in Jesus’ name.

This parable does not use the story to set forth the surprising nature and qualities of God’s reign, as do so many others in the Gospels. Its focus is rather on the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, the institutions of this age. Even the terms of God’s relationship to God’s own people are new. This puzzling parable pulls us forward toward that unknown future in which we will be both blessed and judged, and about which we know only that it is anchored in Jesus Christ.