The Sunday lectionary reading for Trinity 17 in Year A is the second of three judgement parables against the Jerusalem leaders in Matt 21.33–46: traditionally, the parable of the wicked husbandmen, or the parable of the wicked tenants. There is plenty to explore within the passage, and in its relation to the surrounding texts—but it also raises larger questions about the place of judgement in the teaching of Jesus and therefore within our understanding of God and God’s actions.
Charles Talbert, in his Paideia commentary on Matthew, sees judgement as the key theme in the whole of this section of Matthew, which links the different parts of chapters 19 to 25.
The last of Matthew’s five big cycles consists of the customary narrative (Matt 19.3–24.2) and discourse (Matt 24.3–25.46), with the usual closing formula (Matt 26.1a). The two are linked by the theme of judgement: on Israel’s leaders, the temple, inauthentic disciplines, and the nations. Judgement is both within history and at the end of history (p 229).
On the first day in the city, after his ‘triumphal’ entry, Jesus has already acted out judgement in the dramatic symbolism of the cleansing of the temple, and added further symbolic action in the withering of the fig tree. On his second day, when he re-enters the temple, his authority for such acts is questioned by the Jerusalem leaders; they appear to be enacting judgement on him, but his return question reflects their judgement back on themselves, so that they are judged by their attitude to Jesus.
There then follows three parables of judgement, all closely related but unhelpfully separated in our Bibles by a chapter division at Matt 22.1. Although the first parable is unique to Matthew, whilst the second is found in all three Synoptics, the relationship between the two is very close: