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:

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.

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 the 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.