A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 8, 2018: Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46
21:33 “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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

21:34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

21:35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

21:36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

21:37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

21:38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”

21:39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

21:40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

21:41 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.”

21:42 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’?

21:43 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.

21:44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.

21:46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

A Question or Two:

  • What is the connection between this parable and its apparent interpretation?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard….

Thus begins the parable.  And here ends, too often, interpretive attention to the parable itself.  The scene concludes with a clear and obvious attack on the Pharisees and the chief priests.  Interpreters understand that part of the scene well, and they often limit their reading to that attack.

When the parable is read at all, it is used to provide indictments-after-the-fact to justify (somehow) Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees and chief priests.  How did they know that Jesus was speaking about them?  According to customary interpretation, it was because they knew they didn’t produce the “fruits of the kingdom.”  It was because they saw themselves revealed as the murderers of the owner’s servants.

Before preaching on this passage, take a little time to untangle the actual history of the situation.

  • Why attack the chief priests?  They were forced to collaborate with Roman authorities, to act as the “organ of liaison” to manage the population on Rome’s behalf.  As such, they were resented.  They were also well-paid for their work for Rome.  For this, they were also resented.  And all this resentment served Rome’s purposes very well, indeed.  It diverted attention, and resentment, away from Rome to Jewish officials.  When Matthew’s storyteller attacks the chief priests (in a story composed in its present form after Rome crushed the 1st Jewish Revolt), the storyteller is speaking against Rome and against collaboration.
  • Why attack the Pharisees?  They were middle class business folk who believed Torah observance should shape all of life.  Christians seem to have believed that, too.  Certainly they disagreed about details and patterns of practice.  Disagreement was not, and is not, unusual in such matters.  Linking the Pharisees with the chief priests seems at least awkward, and mostly unlikely.  The Pharisees’ strong support of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Rome (132-135C.E.) makes them unlikely collaborators.  And they (unlike the Sadducees, the priestly group) survived the Revolt against Rome because they were not so tightly tied to the Temple.  But because they survived the Revolts, as did the Christians, they (and the Christians) were among the factions accusing each other of causing the loss of the Temple.  Later rabbis, asked what led to the loss of the Temple, answered that it was factionalism.  When Matthew’s storyteller attacks the Pharisees, it is evidence of one part of the inter-group fighting the rabbis were talking about.
  • The charge that the “tenants” rejected, killed, and stoned the owner’s servants interprets the chief priests and the Pharisees as the modern-day killers of the prophets.

Stop right there.

Are you as weary as I am with week after week of Jesus dividing the world into angels and demons, us and them, the “saved” and “those wretches [that deserve] a miserable death”?  Even if you aren’t, I am exhausted.

This last instance is dangerous, and it is long past time for us to say so publicly and clearly.  For one thing, dragging in the “killers of the prophets” is (I would say) a little like painting every opponent as communist or a fascist (depending on your own political preferences).  Pretty soon everyone who didn’t already agree with you quits listening.  That is a rotten outcome, and is evidence of poor thinking and cheap analysis.

But there is a worse problem.  Jesus strongly implies that the priests and the Pharisees are prophet-killers.  The storyteller tells us that the people judged Jesus to be a prophet.  And since Jesus dies near the end of Matthew’s story, readers are being set up to imagine priests (custodians of pre-70C.E. Jewish faith) and Pharisees (leading figures in post-70C.E. formative Judaism) as killers of the Christ.

Stop that.

The Christian faith may never recover from the damage that was done by people who have believed such vicious theologies.

Vicious theologies have many different roots, but Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as rigid and willing to send his opponents to “the outer darkness where people wail and gnash their teeth” provides one set of those roots.  Naïve readings of Matthew’s story, therefore, has led to odd situations: Christian interpreters (who think they are following Jesus) blast Pharisees for being rigid and rejecting, and the Christians gladly (and absolutely) reject them for that.  Christians end up as rigid as their imagined opponents.  Weird.

I have advanced a very different reading of Matthew’s story in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  You can read it for the long version of the argument.

But the heart of my re-reading is in my noticing that Jesus regularly divides the world into the perfect and the damned throughout Matthew’s story.  Whenever he meets a crowd, he discovers imperfect people in that crowd and sends them to the outer darkness where the fire never goes out.  This pattern suddenly shifts in the last scene in the story.  Jesus meets a crowd after being raised from the dead.  The crowd is made up of those who believe and those who doubt.  In any other scene, doubting would be an imperfection that earns damnation.

Not this time.

This time Jesus sends the whole mixed group out to baptize and teach.

Anytime a character changes, there has to be a reason.  I argue that it was the resurrection that changed Jesus.

Read the book.  See if you agree.

For now, though, stop feeding images of a Jesus who always blasts his opponents.  Just stop.

4 thoughts on “A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 8, 2018: Matthew 21:33-46

  1. A very refreshing view of a “complex” Jesus story retold through Matthew. Thank you Richard for putting it in the context of when it was written. Same as our characters change as we understand more of our Jesus story.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s