Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Sundays after Trinity (16)
Matthew 21. 33-end :
An Absentee Landlord & Troublesome Tenants
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Can you recall a situation where somebody in a position of responsibility has been removed and replaced by someone more reliable?
Do you have any experience of dealing with an individual or a group who have not lived up to your hopes and expectations, or failed to do what has been asked of them?
Reflection on the text
A landowner had to be rich, with considerable surplus capital and income, to be able to create a new vineyard from scratch and set it all up for winemaking. The building of a tower, (a decorative folly?) emphasises the extravagant wealth. There would be many lean years between planting vines and selling a good wine. So one supposes that he trusted the tenant farmers to care for it and do their best by him, to give him a good return while he was away.
The chief priests and elders to whom Jesus was telling the story would have been taken by surprise at the tenants’ revolt, and the ferocity with which they treated their landlord’s servants – and then his son. Was it just greed that prompted them – or were they perhaps very poor, exploited and desperate and seizing control of the vineyard seemed their only option? We’re not told. However, it was quite probable at that time that the tenants would have been dispossessed agrarian farmers who had fallen into debt – a phenomena being repeated in Britain today. (See “Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels” by Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh)
Anyway, the listeners expected to hear that the landowner exacted retribution on his wayward tenants. That’s how life was in those days. The landowner’s only concern is to ensure he gets his maximum profits the following year.
But who were the tenants represented by the story? Tradition has it that in the parable the vineyard represented Israel, who had failed to live up to God’s expectations. The owner (God) sent his servants (the prophets) time after time, to collect his dues (restore their obedience and trust) but they met with violent rejection; he finally sent his son – whom they killed. The landowner’s patience is exhausted, and he comes in person, revokes their lease and orders the tenancy to be given to others who will be trustworthy, and produce the harvest he expects it to yield.
But is there another way of looking at this parable?
How might this parable be read by the poorest peasants, scratching for a subsistence livelihood day by day, in somewhere like today’s Zimbabwe … or Ethiopia … or rural India? What kind of God would be so hard on poor, hard-working peasant farmers who were already being exploited by a rich and ruthless landlord?
Again, Malina and Rohrbaugh offer a helpful counterpoint. They question whether it can be assumed, at the earliest stage of the Gospel tradition, that the story was an allegory of God’s dealing with Israel, in the way that it is now seen. They suggest that it may be “a warning to absentee landlords expropriating and exporting the produce of the land” and thereby impoverishing the poorest; a forerunner of Kenyan farmland being used to feed Britain with French Beans.
What is clear is that Jesus was condemning those who held positions of privilege, power and authority at the expense of those who actually worked for the kingdom – the people producing fruit.
some questions for group discussion:
To what extent is this a warning to the church in our day and what is to be done about it?
- Does your local church or group aspire to be a community of love and justice?
- What evidence supports that aspiration?
- Where does it need to change and what will you do to bring that about?
- Where have you seen the ‘fruit of the Kingdom’ in unexpected places? How does that relate to your understanding of being the people of God?
Pray the Lord’s prayer, pausing at ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’…
Then name situations or matters that need to change toward God’s kingdom
After each petition, all repeat: “your kingdom come, your will be done.”
More background information
A. Some thoughts on the cap-stone (or key-stone)
- Matthew 22.42: Jesus’ question to the chief priests and elders, “have you never read in the scriptures: ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone….’ comes from Psalm 118 (vv 22-23). They know that Jesus is addressing them; this is usually understood to be an oblique reference to himself as ‘the stone rejected by the builders’ (of the kingdom) who will in God’s future become the key or cap stone of the kingdom. It is another way of identifying himself as the son sent by the Father to the tenants.
- Tom Wright, in Matthew for Everyone ( ISBN 0-281-05487-8 SPCK 2002), suggests that this may be an allusion (kept alive in the Jewish folk memory) to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (see Daniel Ch 2) interpreted by Daniel as foretelling the fate of earthly ??? The head is of Gold and is impressive, but feet of iron and clay have a fatal flaw when struck and will eventually be smashed by a stone which will bring the whole edifice crashing down. In Daniel 2 this stone becomes a great mountain filling the whole earth. God’s kingdom will ultimately triumph. Is this a justifiable interpretation?
- An alternative interpretation of the rejected stone could be that it represents the rejected poor tenants and the marginalised people in society who will, in the Kingdom, become the most important part of the structure of society holding up an entirely different economic model in which all participate and bear fruit.
B. In the traditional interpretation of this parable:
- God had called and entrusted Israel with a mission in the world (Genesis 12.1-2). As God’s own chosen people, they had always been accountable to him for living the life of the kingdom, producing the fruit of justice and truth. This they had failed to do. Israel is judged and is found wanting. The lease of the vineyard is taken away from the rebellious tenants and is to be given to others who will prove faithful. (Matthew 7.21)
- The people belonging to God are recognised by what they do and by living the life of God’s kingdom. Here is a clear warning to any church or group which claims to act in God’s name that such a claim is validated alone by the fruit of justice that it produces. Claims to hold the monopoly of spiritual power and authority, however ancient or privileged a position it may have in society, are judged on evidence, by the fruit produced. God’s purposes can not be limited by our human institutions, whether through a privileged church, group or nation.