Will the real “wretches” please stand up…

 Matthew 21:33 – 46

Beginning in Matthew 21:23 Jesus is teaching in the temple and the chief priests and the elders of the people engage him in a discussion about authority. He asks them some straight forward questions and then tells them some parables. Last week we explored the parable of the two sons. (you can read both articles online at metmenno.org). The thrust of Jesus argument is (1) they know where Jesus’ authority comes from but they will not admit it and (2) they are like people who say “Yes” to God’s call and then don’t follow through. In Matthew 21:33 – 46, Jesus sets a trap that reveals that he’s right about them.

The trap comes from the interplay between two levels of meaning in the parable. The first level of meaning is a common business practice which was “legal” but against the Law and God’s intention for his people and the land.[1] The second level of meaning comes directly from Isaiah 5:1 – 7. So he is also talking about God and Israel and the Kingdom of God.

Here’s a brief window into the situation. Legally, the absentee landowner owns the vineyard, but he shouldn’t because he is a foreigner. That land used to belong to a Jewish person, who somehow, lost the land. The kicker is that God gave the land to His people as a means of providing for them, economically. They would work the land and the land would yield fruit. So, the tenant farmers have a legitimate complaint. They are working the land, which should be theirs, to the profit of a foreign land owner who shouldn’t even own the land, to begin with. The whole situation hinges on the priests and elders of the people who make this business arrangement possible.

So Jesus sets the trap: There is an absentee landowner who “owns” the land and plants a vineyard. The tenant farmers work the land and are expected to give the profit to the absentee landowner. They stage a rebellion, trying to recover the land and all the fruit for themselves. They kill the absentee landowners collection agents, even his own son.

Here’s Jesus’ question, “When the landowner comes, what will he do to the tenants?” They answer in vs. 41. They refer to the tenants as wretched. They support the absentee landowners right to kill them and rent the land to other tenants. In other words, they support a business practice that is both against God’s intention and against God’s people. This is a big problem (see Isaiah 5:7). It fully reveals the hearts of the chief priests and elders of the people.

This comes full circle when Jesus turns their own answer back on them. If the landowner has authority over the vineyard and the hired help are required to bear good fruit for the landowner, what does that mean for the chief priests and elders? In their very act of supporting an exploitive labor practice against God’s people, the chief priests and elders of the people are revealing that they are not producing the kind of fruit God demands of them. That fruit is the fruit of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). For that reason, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to people who will produce good fruit.

Often times, it is the things that we take for granted as being normal, everyday, routine practices that reveal the truth in our hearts. It is the bloodshed and injustice all around us that we don’t even see or acknowledge that convicts. In the everyday course of life the chief priests and elders of the people supported a practice that was contrary to God’s intent for the land and for the people. It was their inability to see how they participated in something so very wrong that was their undoing, according to Jesus.

May the Spirit reveal to us the normal, everyday, routine practices that we have accepted that ought not be.

[1] I owe much of my thought on this to Parables As Subversive Speech by William R. Herzog. Even though I don’t quote him here his work on parables has become a part of my thinking about them…

[this piece was originally published in the October 5 edition of The Weekly for Metamora Mennonite Church]

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