A traditional and a progressive interpretation

Matthew 21:33-46

Context:   It is vital that we set this story told by Mark [chapter 12:1-11] and then Matthew into the contexts of their time. The writers had a reason to write what they did in the manner in which they did. However, it is equally vital that we not only acknowledge that context and those reasons but we must move on and look at the story in a whole new way to give it relevance to life today. We need to set aside centuries of credal statements and doctrinal theology and come with fresh ways of thinking and interpretation to the parable of the wicked tenants.

In both Gospel accounts there is an absentee landowner who planted a vineyard and then built a wall around it, dug a wine press in it and built a watchtower to ensure that thieves could not get in to steal the crop or the wine. It is a story of defensive inclusion and exclusion. It is the kind of theological thinking that has done untold damage to individuals, communities and whole nations down the centuries.

The story tells of tenant farmers who work the vineyard for the absentee landlord, paying an agreed share of the harvest to the absentee landlord who remained wealthy on the backs of the poor. But these tenants didn't want to pay the agreed share and there followed a catastrophic event.

"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." [vv34-39]

Both Mark and Matthew have written hind sight stories. Mark's account is probably a creative fiction told by the Apostle Peter to Mark and the Peter community in Rome rather than it being a parable actually told by Jesus. It is much more a theological statement of what the early Christians believed happened to Jesus and subsequently to his fellow Jewish persecutors and Roman executors.

As Mark and then Matthew read back into the events of that first Easter so they were able to put prophetic words into the mouth of Jesus concerning the landowner's son being sent to and subsequently killed by the tenants. Both Matthew and Mark place this parable of the tenants into the historical events of that final week in Jerusalem when the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders were looking for a way to arrest him.

It was not so much the writing technique of the historian as it was the storyteller's technique to do what any police crime thriller does today: it identifies the motivation of the chief priests et al to kill Jesus; it offers the opportunity during the unrest surrounding Passover in Jerusalem; and then it shows that the deed is done. And all this told in retrospect with that valuable gift of writer's hindsight!

The traditional Christian interpretation of this story is that the landlord is an absentee landlord - we know this because he is somewhere away, hence having to send servants and then his own son. But he is more than just any absentee landlord: in the creative fiction he is none other than Yahweh God. But we need to be aware that the disobedient tenant farmers were not all the Jews but they were primarily the leaders such as the Sadducees, the Herodians and some of the Pharisees who, according to the leaders of the early churches, had led the people astray.

As I said last week, when the scriptures mention a vineyard it is often symbolic of Israel. The leaders, or perhaps all those Jews who rejected Jesus, are seen as the tenants. But what of the servants sent by the absentee landlord? In the developing early theologies of the first century churches, Moses, Joshua, David and various prophets of the Hebrew Testament were known as the "servants of the Lord". In their way of thinking and experiencing 'God', their God had sent prophets in former times to warn the Chosen People to repent and to turn back to God, but their leaders failed to listen to the prophets.

In the traditional Christian interpretation of this story, God eventually sent his only son because, God thought that the Chosen People would listen to him and respond as God wished. Sadly, the Chosen People took the only son and killed him. In the Christian tradition Jesus himself is the son. When it comes to the building analogy, traditionally the "rejected stone" is also Jesus and the "builders" were the religious leaders of Israel.

Also, the traditional Christian interpretation of this story is that at the end justice is done and the landlord's son is vindicated. God's anger was now turned in full measure against his Chosen People. Some of the early church theology interpreted this as the punishment of God seen in the destruction of the Temple and the mass suicide of Jewish fighters at Masada. The tenants [the religious leaders of the original chosen of Israel] are killed and the vineyard is given to others [the predominantly gentile Christian Church: the new Temple built of people and not of stones!] Notice that at this point, even in Mark's Gospel, this is a hindsight addition because it could not have been written until after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and I am convinced that Mark's Gospel was written around 67 C.E.

This parable of the tenants is rounded off by another theological statement in Mark and repeated by Matthew 21:42, intended to reassure persecuted Christian communities that they were indeed on God's side and would one day also be vindicated: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing." Now the whole of the future of the Christian Church could rest on Jesus holding the edifice in place, stone upon stone finally finished by the capstone!

The early writers and story tellers indicated that Jesus developed out of a strict Pharisaic code of holiness by separation into an understanding of the love of Yahweh as being inclusive. The Gospel writers interpreted the stories about him as the one who eventually broke down barriers between Jew and gentile, female and male, slave and free, treating all people as equals. From the life and developing ministry of Jesus they understood that Yahweh did not take the side of the Jews against the gentiles and no one tribe could claim sole ownership of or access to God.

All of this is theology and not history, although at some point Jesus may well have told stories that were variations on confrontations between absentee landlords and their tenants and building blocks of the Kingdom.

In 1952 the Bible translator, writer and clergyman, J.B. Phillips, wrote a book entitled 'Your God is Too Small.' Although the book is now outdated, the more I study the Hebrew and Christian scriptures the more convinced I become that the Jewish understandings of God at the time of Jesus were way too small. It was within the early Christian communities, including Jews and gentiles, that the Jewish exclusive understanding of Yahweh was expanded as a result of the teaching and ministry of Jesus. And, as a passing comment, I suggest that for many religious people today, they continue to be way too small in our contemporary times!

A progressive interpretation: We now turn to another way of interpreting this story to help make sense of life in our contemporary world. To do so we have to set aside any notion of God being the absentee landlord and the tenants being the wicked Jews in the vineyard.

At that time there were many absentee landlords and tenants, and I am sure that Jesus was much more on the side of the exploited tenants than he was on the side of the absentee landlords. In this alternative interpretation God was on the side of the poor who were exploited as they scraped a living on fields and in vineyards that were not their own.

For many progressive Christians, Jesus is the gateway into the awareness of the sacred but he is not the only gateway. Other gateways exist for other religious faiths. For any faith group to restrict 'God' to the followers of their own religious experiences and explanations is to make God, whatever that may be in your experience, way too small!

But what might this story mean for those of us who have gone beyond any notion of 'God' being an interventionist Being? What can we make of this story when we reject a theology of an interventionist God who will one day right all that is wrong with life?

And what is 'sacred' for me today? To answer this I find the following list included in Gretta Vosper's "With or Without God" to be very useful, "I am deeply aware that, should we lose even one of these things, the world would be a very different place: hope, peace, joy, innocence, delight, forgiveness, caring, love, respect, wisdom, honour, creativity, tranquillity, beauty, imagination, humour, awe, truth, purity, justice, courage, fun, compassion, challenge, knowledge, daring, artistry, wonder, strength, and trustworthiness." [p.32]

For me, 'sacred' is no longer something to do with an interventionist Being who is bigger than ourselves. 'Sacred' has become all that needs to be preserved and encouraged to make humanity whole. To take away one quality of the 'sacred' is to diminish the whole of humanity.

I cannot and I will not tell you what is the Jesus Way for you. All I can do is explain my experiences of Jesus that have become my [not always successful] way of following his example. In my encounter with the sacred met in Jesus I am called to challenge unnecessary boundaries that separate people from people and nations from nations. As I look at our contemporary world I often wonder what future there may be for any of us if those who follow the Jesus Way do not live the boundary breaking life of Jesus and challenge the barriers created by cultural, economic, political and religious tribalism. Other religious faith groups will have their own examples to follow but the great world religions have in common the Golden Rule, "do unto others what you wish them to do to you / do not do to others what you wish they do not do to you."

That which is 'sacred' for me includes such as respecting and dignifying difference; the wisdom that adequately addresses contemporary needs and responses; the sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of creation and the humanity experienced within and between individual and corporate lives; forgiveness; empathy; justice; compassion. The crowning glory of all of that which is sacred is love alone, demonstrated by and culminating in the story of the Sermon on the Mount, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." [Matthew 25:35 & 36].

The contemporary Jesus story concerns justice and abundant living for all people. It is about humanity itself. It has nothing to do with theological sheep and goats - with separating those who are 'in' from those who are 'out'. It is concerned with building communities in which all are safe and all needs are met.

Which interpretation of this story of the tenant farmers and the land owner's son has more chance of universal impact today - the traditional theological that separates for the well-being of those who believe in Jesus at the eternal expense of those who don't - or the alternative interpretation that challenges the followers of Jesus to social, economic, ecological and political barrier breaking for the good of all humanity?

Matthew 21:33-46 [NRSVA]

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

33 'Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son." 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance." 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?' 41 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.'

42 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"?

43 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. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.'

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.