Whose vineyard is it?
Matthew 21: 33-46
In this time of uncertainty, entirely due to the corona virus, I have been thinking seriously about my own mortality and my last will and testimony. Do I name the grandchildren individually or do I let their parents’ sort out what each should receive? I remember my own great grandma and our conversations about the jewellery that she wanted me to have. When it came to her death one of her children took the lot, and of course, I had no way to challenge their authority.
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 reading is one of those second parables addressed to the challenge posed by the chief priests and elders about the source of Jesus’ authority.
The parable begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner established a vineyard complete with a surrounding 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 harvest, 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. This is not normal!
Those second group of 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 strange logic that the thugs who have abused two delegations of slaves will respect the owner's son and heir. How unwise was that? In parallel stupidity 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 following along with the parable? I hope so, because the punch line is almost here. Jesus asks his audience, those 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”.
Whether the answer is given in a gloating voice or in fear and trembling depends on where those listening see themselves, and that is us, in the story, and there is 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. Being wealthy they would be able to actually own land, and to have others manage it for them while they were busy with their executive 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 casting God as the landowner and the temple leaders as the thoroughly evil tenants who are defrauding God of the rightful fruits of his covenant with Israel. In this allegory, the groups of servants are Israel’s prophets and Jesus is, of course, the son.
We, in turn, are the “other tenants” who the “vineyard” will be given to after it’s taken from the Jerusalem leaders who have not managed it well. All this is seen as an symbol of salvation history by Matthew, 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 perhaps even against Judaism as a whole.
Before we buy into 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 by Matthew. 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 in stereo 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' impact with the Jerusalem leadership is a thread running through the whole of Matthew’s 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 the scribes and Pharisees 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’ quotation from Psalm 118, ‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’, does not deny 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 construction 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 until ‘the end of days’.
This parable does not use the story to set out the surprising nature and qualities of God’s reign, as so many others in the Gospels do. Its focus is rather on the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, the institutions of this and every 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 is anchored in Jesus Christ. We, the new tenants, are to care for the vineyard and be ready to restore the harvest when Jesus calls.
The Rt. Rev’d Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 04/10/2020