There are parables and there are parables. There are parables like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan that grab us as stories and shape our experience of God and our life of faith. There are parables that are simple and seem obvious, like the Sower. There are parables that puzzle us and seem to elude any definitive interpretation, like the Laborers in the Vineyard, or the Dishonest Steward. And there are parables that seem either totally alien to our lives and experience, or so clear in their intent and purpose that we are inclined to pass over and ignore them.
I would place the story we heard today—the Wicked Tenants—in the last category, among the group of parables that at least as presented in Matthew’s gospel, is so obvious in its meaning, and so troubling in many ways, that we don’t want to engage it, either as readers or as preachers. It seems not to speak at all to us, or if it does, its blindingly obvious. It’s an allegory of Israel, the prophets who were rejected, the religious establishment, and Jesus who was killed. That certainly seems to be what Matthew wants us to get out of the story, especially given that places it while Jesus is teaching in the Temple, confronting the religious authorities.
I wonder whether we’re able to extricate the parable from that context of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. There’s another layer of context and conflict to which we must also be attentive. That is the context in which the gospel writer was writing. Although Matthew is deeply imbued with first-century Judaism, it is refracted through the reality of conflict between the nascent Christian community in which Matthew is writing, and the developing Rabbinic Judaism from which Matthew’s group has come.
Can we listen to the parable with new ears, with ears not full of the noise of Jewish-Christian conflict? Can we lay aside the implication that the parable is predicting Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Jewish authorities (but remember it was Rome, not the chief priests, who crucified Jesus). Can we instead look at this story of a vineyard, workers, and a landowner who seeks to grasp his wealth and ask what good news, what proclamation of the kingdom, what message does this have for us?
To get at these questions, which should be at the heart of every reading of every parable, we need to hear the story again, in its bareness and simplicity, with none of the additions provided by Matthew. In fact, several versions of the parable exist, in Mark, Luke, even in the Gospel of Thomas. Comparison of these versions leads to the conclusion that Matthew makes the story more anti-Jewish, by changing the single servant mentioned by Mark into groups of servants, by saying that they killed the servants (not merely beating them, and by having Jesus ask the question at the end to which the chief priests and elders reply.
As I’ve suggested before, one of the keys to exploring the meaning of parables is to focus on behavior or actions in them that don’t seem to make sense. In this parable, there’s a wealth of such inexplicable, even irrational behavior. First, the tenants. They refuse to play by the rules; they refuse to acknowledge what they owe the landowner. They abuse not one, but two sets of servants who come to collect what is owed. Then, to top it off, they kill the landowner’s own son when he comes. All of that is outrageous. Even more ridiculous and offensive is their reason for killing the son, that they will inherit the vineyard. I don’t know of any inheritance law in human history that would allow for that.
The other odd behavior is that of the landowner himself. If the tenants treated his servants so abominably, why on earth would he think they would respect his son? One could search for clues to the meaning of this parable in either group’s behavior.
But there’s something else. In Mark’s version of the parable, the statement that the landowner will come, seize the vineyard, kill the tenants, and let it out to someone else is put in Jesus’ mouth. In Matthew, those words are the response of Jesus’ listeners to his question, “what will the landowner do?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “he will kill those wretches… and later Matthew adds, the chief priests and the elders knew Jesus was talking about them in these parables.
I think there’s another possibility here. What if we let Jesus ask the question of us, leaving the answer for us to ponder? How would we go about formulating our response?
Let me offer some hints about how an open question might help us rethink the whole story. What do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, enterprising, even somewhat generous, perhaps. He plants a vineyard, builds a winepress, and rents the whole thing out. At the end of the year, he wants his share of the proceeds from the vineyard. We don’t know, we can’t tell from the story whether he’s demanding too much, but I think there’s a clue in the fact that he isn’t closely watching what’s going on back in the vineyard. He’s not overly concerned about ensuring high profits and low costs, he’s not micro-managing.
What do we know about the tenants? However industrious they might be, they are also greedy. They want more than their fair share, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it. So when the landowner sends servants to secure his share of the proceeds, the tenants resist. A second set of servants comes, again the tenants turn them away. What does the landowner do now? He’s still hopeful that the situation can be remedied. Perhaps the tenants will respect his son. But no, still greedy, still grasping, the tenants kill the son in the misguided hope that the landowner will give up and they’ll get the vineyard, perhaps by squatter’s rights.
So, I ask again, what do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, generous, and patient. Given all that, what will he do next? The answer given in the gospel reading is an answer from the perspective of a dog-eat-dog worldview. I get mine. I get yours, too, unless you are stronger than me. We could translate the story very easily into our own economy and world
But are those the values of the reign of God? Is that what Jesus preached? What does Jesus teach in Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy, if someone asks you for a cloak, give him your coat as well.
How might we answer the question: What would the landowner do, from this set of values, trying to live out the values of the Reign of God? We might want to look at it from the perspective of the landowner, to imagine what we might, or ought to do, in a similar situation. But I’m not sure that’s the appropriate angle to take.
I think that on one level, the question Jesus asks challenges us to reconsider how we think about God. Can we imagine a God whose grace and mercy extend to the unimaginable, beyond our wildest dreams? Can we imagine a God so creative, so patient as the landowner in the parable? A God who has made us stewards of a lovely and bountiful vineyard, and asks us to give back to God, what is owed, and to be as generous to others as God has been generous to us? Can we imagine a God like that? Can we imagine ourselves, as generous and creative as that God?