The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) provides another example of a problematic Gospel passage that begs for context. Unfortunately, the way the Orthodox Church reads this parable on the 13th Sunday of Matthew only increases the difficulty of reading this parable with an open mind.
But before we consider the difficulties of this parable, let’s look at a couple passages in the Book of Isaiah. In chapter 46 of Isaiah, God speaks to his people:
“Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,
all the remnant of the people of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since your birth,
and have carried since you were born.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
Some pour out gold from their bags
and weigh out silver on the scales;
they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,
and they bow down and worship it.
They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;
they set it up in its place, and there it stands.
The difference is huge: God carries his people; but worshippers of idols have to carry their idols! But the same God who carries his people also passes judgment on his people. It is a living, unfolding relationship. It was never smooth and it is never smooth. Consider this passage from Isaiah, chapter 5:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Israel’s relationship with God was never smooth; it had its ups and its downs. The parable of the wicked tenants could have been spoken by Isaiah. Note the similarities with Isaiah 5: There is a vineyard, there is blood and violence, and there is the threat of destruction. It’s God speaking with his own people! But the parable has been misused throughout the Christian era as a rejection of Jews and the replacement of Israel by the Christian Church. This has led to centuries of antisemitism, persecutions and the Holocaust.
Isaiah and Jesus had the same message: God looks for fruit from his vineyard. Jesus in John 15 spoke of himself as the vine and we the branches; we remain in him in order to produce fruit. It is always about fruit. As it was in ancient Israel it is in the Church.
Sometimes I wonder why Matthew includes so many attacks on the Jews in his gospel. Is it perhaps because he was a tax collector, which had made him one of the most hated people in Jewish society?
Did you notice the violent response of the listeners to Jesus’ parable? “He will put those wretches to a miserable death….” Jesus ignores their answer and he goes on to quote Psalm 118 about “the stone which the builders rejected…” The liturgical reading on the 13th Sunday of Matthew ends there, but Jesus went on with all-important context:
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people (or, nation) producing the fruits of it.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.
Who are the people (the nation) that Jesus threatens will receive the kingdom? Is he threatening the Jewish people that he will take the kingdom from them and give it to gentiles and future Christians? That is the traditional church interpretation – and it has led to 2,000 years of antisemitism. But notice how the priests and the Pharisees interpreted the parable as aimed at them. And notice further that the “multitudes” of the people saw Jesus as a prophet! Before we get too puffed up that God now chooses the Christian people over the Jewish people, let’s look at more of the context in Matthew chapter 21. What came before this parable?
He went to the Temple and drove out the sellers and money-changers. He then cursed a fig tree because it had no fruit. He told the parable of two sons. And at the end of that parable he says the tax collectors – tax collectors like Matthew! – and prostitutes “are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The parable of the wicked tenants follows immediately after that. So who are the people that the kingdom will be given to? Doesn’t Jesus give us the answer here? Tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, sinners.
God was not looking for a new nation or a new race of people to replace the Jews. God looks for the tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, those who are not puffed up with their own righteousness the way priests and pharisees of all stripes and all times are. God looked for fruitful living – whether from the Jews or from Christians. The criterion is always the same. The challenge for the church is the same as it was for ancient Israel: Are we producing fruits of righteousness and faith? Are we doing the will of the Lord, or are we doing our will? Is the church his vineyard, planted in the midst of the world for the blessing of all, or is it our little spiritual escape from the world? Is it a vineyard that is full of life? Or is it a vineyard that is dying because of neglect and lack of vision? Indeed, how is our vineyard doing? Is the owner still welcome here? Or have we driven him out? These are the challenges of today’s parable.
A slightly different version of the above was given as a sermon on August 26th: