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."
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
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
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
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
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
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]
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.'
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
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.