Listen to another parable.
This is the third and final vineyard parable of this series in Matthew. The first was the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard on September 18, then the Parable of the Two Sons (in the vineyard) on September 25. This week we have the parable of the Wicked Tenants.
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. 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.
We had an interesting conversation online about allegory last week. This story continues the allegory. The way we know this is verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.” Even the Pharisees know it’s allegory. This isn’t about wicked tenants. It’s about them.
So if we follow the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture, we are led to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus is telling story about one thing, while clearly meaning another. The tenants are the chief priests and the Pharisees. Following this through then, God is the landowner, who sent slaves, the prophets, who were beaten, stoned and killed. The killing and stoning of the prophets is made clear again in Matthew 23:25, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning all those sent to you…” This is a running theme in Matthew (and Isaiah).
God sends the prophets to the people to call them to bear fruits of repentance – justice and mercy, weightier matters of the law – but gets only violence. Over and over. This is the story of the world. God calls us to love. God calls us to create a society where people are fed. Instead there is violence. Jesus saw it in his day. There was the violence of the Roman Empire (torture and death by crucifixion, massacres, and so on) and violence by those who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire (terrorists like the Sicarii and the Zealots).
Finally the landowner sends his son. They seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the son is (although we have plenty of them in Houston if necessary). Jesus’ crucifixion is the logical outcome of an society bent on violence. Jesus is an archetype for the suffering of this world, the falsely accused, the powerless, the victims of violence and hatred.
What do you think the landowner will do about it? This is a parable of judgment. “He will put those wretches to death,” – and here the chief priests and Pharisees listening in on the edge of the crowd start to squirm a bit – “and lease the vineyard to someone else, someone who will bear fruit.” This is a tough text for those who believe in judgment “lite.”
In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus then underscores the point again, explaining his own parable a bit, just in case they’re so dense they missed it the first time: “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.”
One can imagine the workers in the vineyard to be the chief priests and Pharisees, or perhaps they are us. What does this story mean for us today? Stories are meant to have living implications for those who hear them. How do you hear this?
Having just returned from El Salvador, I am hearing this passage through the voice of the Salvadoran people I met. To get a sense of this read my blog posts:
People like Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez spoke out against corruption and violence. For this he has been imprisoned and beaten. People like Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke up for justice and was executed by the death squads (wicked tenants)? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the ways of peace. Are you speaking out against injustice? There is plenty to go around. Are you speaking up for the voiceless and powerless? Are you bearing witness against the violence both of the state and of those who wish to overthrow the state? Have you been thrown in prison for your prophetic voice? If not, why is that? Have you been willing to risk mild criticism on behalf of the poor, the widow, the orphan or the stranger?
Okay, an edgy text. So what’s the good news here? This is a parable of judgment. Sounds like bad news to me. We never treat a text, however, out of the greater context of the entire narrative of Matthew in which it resides. The good news is the vineyard owner cares. The vineyard owner is going to do something that involves his son and a releasing of the vineyard. The good news is God is calling all people to be part of the work in the vineyard, no matter what hour it is. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. The good news is that God will bring about the kingdom, in time. It will be built upon a cornerstone which the builders rejected. That which appeared to have no value, is inherently of ultimate value.
Let whoever has ears listen