Parable of the Wicked Tenants - Matthew 21:33-46
CSM Shared Word- October 5, 2008
Matthew 21:33-46 (New International Version). The Parable of the Tenants
33"Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said.
38"But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' 39So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40"Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
41"He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
42Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: " 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?
43"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed."
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
How many of you heard a sermon today (or recently) preached on this text?
Some Bibles give this passage a heading of The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.
How many of you heard in the sermon that the landowner who planted the vineyard was God? And the wicked tenants were the Pharisees or other Jews who did not follow Jesus?
Now, how many of you heard that the vineyard owner was George W. Bush – or maybe Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher – and the wicked tenants were the black-clad anarchists “throwing feces” at the cops out in the streets at the RNC?
I suspect the second reading of this parable of Jesus is closer to Jesus’ original meaning than the first. I must admit that most of my speculation about this parable owes much to William Herzog’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Ched Myers – but don’t blame them if I over-step in my own analysis.
I’ve provided some copies of this text. Since many commentators and the lectionary for today pair this parable with the passage from Isaiah, I included that as well- on the other side. Do these two stories really go together?
The Isaiah passage talks about the vineyard producing wild grapes and then allowed to be destroyed by nature – a very different outcome than Jesus’ parable where the tenants rise up to kill the owner’s son. The story in Isaiah is told from the perspective of Yahweh – but is the New Testament story?
Why have so many Biblical teachers and pastors assumed that the “householder” or “lord of the vineyard” is God? The word in Greek for the owner is oikodespotes – or lord of the household. It is no accident that we get the English word despot from the Greek word for lord since that is the way power is often used. At the time of Jesus, to talk about building a vineyard in Galilee would jar the listener. The land was already largely accounted for and the only way one could use the land for an export crop was by taking it from someone else. Only the very wealthy could afford to make an investment that a vineyard required – typically, a vineyard would not produce for the first 4 years while the vines matured and even in the 5th year it would be an unsure harvest.
The “husbandmen” or tenants were likely former farmers who had lost their land through foreclosure on loans they were unable to repay. So, the wealthy landowner would have to pay the tenant farmers those first 4-5 years while the vineyard was being established – so the owner had to have significant wealth for that time. Often, the tenant farmers would plant their vegetables for their own subsistence living between the rows of vines during this start-up period. They needed these vegetables to support their own hungry families.
So one way to understand this story is to recognize what it might mean for the wealthy owner to send his “henchmen” to seize a portion of the vegetables these tenant farmers were growing for their own families while the grape vines were getting established. These peasant farmers had already lost their own land to the rich and had been forced into this sharecropper relationship. They probably thought that they could at least keep what they grew between the rows of vines for their own families but now this rich bastard was demanding his share of that as well.
This story would be readily understood by some of Jesus’ listeners as an example of the kind of injustice Isaiah was talking about. While the lectionary pairs this story with Isaiah 5:1-7, it misses the whole point by not including verse 8. Isaiah’s story about the vineyard was that it was destroyed because the people of Judea practiced oppression rather than justice. How did they do this? Verse 8 says they “added house to house and joined field to field until there was no more room in the land” – exactly how this wealthy landowner did in Jesus’ story.
Do we all need a reminder of the centrality of the Sabbath and Jubilee principles again? The people of God were to guard against falling into debt and the type of slavery typified by these tenant farmers - by cancelling debts and returning fields to their original family ownership rather than letting the wealthy dominate as in Jesus’ parable.
But because we have so lionized the rich, the wealthy, the powerful in our society, we don’t see the glaring discontinuity between justice and oppression in Jesus’ story because we’ve internalized the lens of capitalism when we hear the story and assume the rich landlord is God! Do we want our God to be seizing land from poor people?
But how realistic is this story anyway? Would these tenant farmers really think by killing the heir they could keep the vineyard for themselves? Would an absentee landlord really send his SON to the place where his servants had just been beaten and killed? It is doubtful the tenant farmers could have gotten away with doing it once –let alone several times before the landlord responds with brute force.
What Jesus is trying to do with this story is to expose the spiral of violence as the people of Galilee experienced it during his lifetime. As the famous Archbishop of Recife, Brazil (Dom Helder Camara) has taught us, the spiral of violence starts with the first phase: the everyday oppression and exploitation of the poor by ruling elites. Like the hostile takeover of peasant lands to grow export crops, this type of violence is covert and perfectly “legal”. Like predatory subprime mortgages – followed by foreclosure and loss of one’s homestead. Sound familiar?
But when the poor peasants’ very existence is threatened – after all, they are now on a subsistence level- they will revolt to save themselves and their families. And thus the second phase of this spiral of violence. The tenants beat up and kill the “retainers”, the “servants” sent by the wealthy owner. And how are these revolts or rebellions responded to by the powerful? By the use of overwhelming force which is again, an officially sanctioned use of violence – just like phase one. As Dom Helder remarks, this is done “under the pretext of safeguarding public order or national security”. This is the third phase.
Now can you see the connection between Sheriff Fletcher and the “anarchists” at the RNC? The first spiral is the on-going war –albeit in a distant land so it might not be in the forefront of people’s consciousness on a day-to-day basis. The “anarchists” “strike back” at the repression they feel from the National Security State by busting the Macy’s window or the windshields of some cop cars. What is the response? –an overwhelming display of force by police clad in ninja-turtle-style riot gear, armed with chemical weapons, ready to “bust some heads”.
I know, the analogy isn’t perfect. But isn’t Jesus in using this and other parables trying to expose this spiral of violence that he sees the people experiencing? Jesus asks the rhetorical question: When the lord of the vineyard shall come, what will he do to those husbandmen? Well, Duh! We all know they are gonna get their asses kicked! What is going to happen to those black-clad “anarchists” in the street? Well, Duh! We all know they are gonna get their asses kicked!
Jesus, in these Gospel stories, has just entered Jerusalem in what we now call the “Triumphal Entry”. There are crowds cheering him on – maybe, just maybe, he will be the one to challenge this oppression they all feel from both the Roman occupiers and their collaborators in oppression, the Temple elite. But Jesus realizes that to fight back with violence will only result in the crushing over-reaction by those in power. It is Jesus’ principled nonviolence – his way of subverting the oppressive power through love, sacrifice, story, and community that challenges everything this power is built on. Jesus’ way subverts all of the Domination System and he calls us to follow.
Yes, the chief priests and the Pharisees –these religious leaders heard the parables and “they perceived he spake it against them”. And so they wanted to kill him but “they feared the multitude” – and continued their plotting another day.
I think some of the cops (and their bosses) “feared the multitudes” and were somewhat restrained on the streets by the presence of media cameras and other “witnesses”. Make no mistake; they will continue to “go after” anyone who challenges their hegemony.
Jesus calls us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” when we are sent out as “sheep among the wolves”. Whether the predators are militarists occupying Middle Eastern countries or hedge fund managers, subprime lenders, and Wall Street tycoons – those who in their rapacious greed continue to “add house to house and join field to field” to where there is “no more room in the land” – or no more room in the Federal Budget after a $700 billion bailout for any monies for education, health care, or the poor – we are called to resist them in the way of Jesus: with creative, loving, principled nonviolence.
The naivety of the tenants in vs. 38 sounds to me very closely to the same naivety I sense in some of the self-described “anarchists” who think we can “stand up to the power” and the masses will follow –rather than being crushed. Did some of Jesus’ followers have a false hope of a mass uprising after the Triumphal Entry or was Jesus’ lack of belief in a mass violent revolution what drove Judas to try to “ramp up” the confrontation?
This parable gives us much to chew on. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are called to remember as well, the cost. The gospel story concludes, “They sought to lay hold of him.” Does this sound like a felony charge of “conspiracy to commit riot in furtherance if terrorism” or some other charge the authorities will concoct? Are we ready to put our own selves on the line in trying to break this spiral of violence? It can only be broken by principled nonviolence. That is our challenge today.