‘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. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They 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”?
43Therefore 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. 44The 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.46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Translation: "Hear another parable: There was a 'house-ruler' who planted a vineyard and placed a hedge around it and dug a wine vat in it and built a tower and let it out to tenants and went away. But when the time of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to take his fruit. And the tenants took his servants, and thrashed one, and killed one, and stoned one. Again, he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did to them likewise.
Last of all, he sent to them his son, saying, 'They will be shamed by my son.' The tenants, seeing the son, said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and let us have the inheritance.' And they took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed (him). When, therefore, the lord of the vineyard might come, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, 'He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and the vineyard will be leased to other tenants who will deliver to him the fruits in his decisive time.'
Jesus said to them, 'Have you never distinguished in the scriptures: 'A stone which the house-builders rejected, this has become the head of the corner. Through the lord, it became this, and it was wonderful in our eyes?' Because of this, I say to you that the kingdom of God will be raised up from you and it will be given to a multitude that produces fruit of it. And the one falling on this stone will be crushed, upon whom it might fall, he will be ground to powder." When the chief priests and the pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. And seeking to take hold of him, they were fearing the crowds because they regarded him as a prophet.
Background and situation: This is the second of three controversy stories in a row. The first, the parable of the two sons, was from Special Matthew (21: 23-32). This week's lection, 21:33-46, is originally from Mark (12: 1-12), though with several changes of emphasis. (For example, Matthew changes Mark's "man" to "house-ruler." In Matthew, the "house-ruler" wants all of the fruit, whereas in Mark it's "some of the fruit.")
The vineyard is a common image for Israel. Indeed, the Old Testament reading for the day is Isaiah 5: 1-7, the "song of the vineyard."
In the "song of the vineyard," however, it is the vineyard itself which is seen to be at fault. God planted grapes, but kept getting "wild grapes" instead. In today's gospel reading, it is not the vineyard itself which is flawed, but rather the leadership that has failed.
Parable of the wicked tenants: Mark tells of several individual servants who are sent to the vineyard of Israel. Matthew focuses this to two sets of servants, possibly, some have suggested, to represent both pre-exilic and post-exilic prophets. Finally--"last of all"--the "house-ruler" sends his son. (The phrase "last of all" sounds an eschatological note.)
Matthew refers to the prophets more than any other gospel writer, not surprising considering that Matthew is a Jew and writing for a predominantly Jewish community. In Matthew, the people affirm Jesus as prophet as he enters the city of Jerusalem (21: 11). They do so again in verse 46.
The plotting of the tenants seems to follow this logic: If the "house-ruler" dies without an heir, the tenants would have a claim to the land. (This part was true.) If the son showed up at the vineyard, the tenants might take that as a sign that the "house-ruler" had died. The son would then be the last remaining obstacle in their appropriation of the vineyard. Kill him and the vineyard is theirs?
Such a possibility fails because at the end of the parable, the "house-ruler" is still very much alive and preparing to dish out punishment. The tenants' plot is both clueless and fantastic.
The "house-ruler," in NRSV, says, "They will respect my son." The word is entrepo, and the primary reading of entrepo is "shame." The word is in the future passive form, and the most natural reading would be, "They will be shamed by my son."
"Respect" might be an appropriate alternate reading, but I'm wondering if Matthew didn't really intend the word to mean "be shamed." The leadership, in Matthew's way of thinking, should have been "shamed" by their failure to lead the people in a way consistent with God's message delivered through the prophets, and now, through the prophet Jesus.
In regard to tenant violence, Matthew again makes some changes to the story he received from Mark. In Mark, the violence is somewhat random and chaotic. First, the servants are beaten, then wounded, then killed. Other servants are sent, and some were wounded, and others were killed.
Matthew structures the violence, and connects it to the circumstances of Jesus' own death. In Matthew, the tenants throw the son out of the vineyard. (In Mark, the son is killed, then thrown out of the vineyard.) Being thrown out of the vineyard is a metaphor for being thrown out of Israel, such as when Jesus was crucified on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. It is another way of saying that the religious leadership of Judaism rejected Jesus.
The "owner of the vineyard" (21:40) is actually identified as "lord of the vineyard" in the Greek text, which makes clear that the judgment which follows comes from God.
Jesus has structured the telling of the story such that it is the chief priests and scribes who give voice to their own judgment. He asks what the "lord" would do to the wicked tenants? They pronounce: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death."
John Meier notes that the phrase, "He will put those wretches to a wretched end," is a play on words from the Greek play Ajax, by Sophocles. (Such fine-tuned Greek literary allusions undermine the argument that Matthew wrote originally in Aramaic.)
The response of the chief priests and scribes is incriminating on yet another level as well. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death" is a statement that reveals the chief priests and scribes to be people of violence.
That is their judgment, however, and not God's. God does not respond to the tenants' treachery with violence, but rather by removing the chief priests and scribes from their position of authority in the vineyard. Instead, the vineyard will be given over to those who "produce the fruits of the kingdom."
By the end of the parable, the concept of vineyard has shifted. The vineyard is no longer Israel or Jerusalem, but rather "the kingdom". It is no longer governed by a corrupt elite, but by an egalitarian people who live out the precepts of that kingdom.
Good works: Matthew regularly speaks of "fruit" or "bearing fruits." "Fruits" is Matthew's favorite metaphor for walking in the way of Jesus, doing as Jesus did, following the program of Jesus, which, in sum, is the absolute equality of all, and an affirmation of the dignity of every human being.
This is lived out through open table hospitality, opposition to corruption and exploitation of the poor, and non-heirarchical living. As an example of the latter, notice that it is a "people"--ethne--who are given responsibility for the vineyard, not a class of leaders. A "people" will bear fruit, not merely their supposed spiritual "betters".
The parable itself ends without any reference to resurrection or vindication. Jesus then adds Psalm 118: 22-23--"the stone which the builders rejected"--to say that God has indeed vindicated Jesus and placed him at the "head of the corner."
This is how the resurrection should be understood: The way which is rejected--non-violence, equality, human dignity--turns out to be the true way. The resurrection is God's vindication of the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It is God's stamp of approval--God's emphatic "yes!"--to the way of compassion as exemplified by Jesus in his life and his death.
Matthew then has Jesus announce that God will turn the vineyard over to a "people" who "produce the fruits of the kingdom," which is the actual doing of justice and living a way of life already demonstrated by Jesus throughout the book of Matthew.
Interestingly, the pharisees are lumped in with the chief priests in verse 45, though these two groups were often at odds with each other. In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees (chief priests) were firmly in control of the Temple apparatus and the Sanhedrin. In the time of Matthew, c. AD 80, the pharisees had supplanted the Sadducees as the dominant tradition within Judaism.
The pharisees then re-wrote their own history to show that they had actually been dominant in the Sanhedrin all along. (This is rather like the old Soviets who used to air-brush discredited politicians out of photographs.) This was not true in actual history, however.
The chief priests and pharisees--no fools!--correctly discern that the parable of the wicked tenants was about them. They want to arrest Jesus right then and there, but Jesus was speaking publicly and was surrounded by the crowds who regarded Jesus as a prophet.
Again, we see the mass appeal of Jesus and his popularity with common people. That they regarded Jesus as a prophet also ties Jesus, again, to the figures in the parable.
Image: Tenants in the vineyard, Nelly Bube