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:
|Parable of the two sons||Parable of wicked tenants|
|Jesus’ introduction||Matt 21.28a||Matt 21.33a|
|The parable itself||Matt 21.28b–30||Matt 21.33b–39|
|Jesus’ question||Matt 21.31a||Matt 21.40|
|Opponents’ response||Matt 21.31b||Matt 21.41|
|Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement||Matt 21.31c–32||Matt 21.42–44|
The two parables are also bracketed together by the theme of the leaders’ fear of the crowds, mentioned before the beginning of the first (Matt 21.26) and at the end of the second (Matt 21.46).
Matthew’s different introduction from Mark 12.1 and Luke 20.9 ‘Hear another parable…’ simply reflects the different location of the parable as one of three. But the description of the central character as a ‘master of a household’ or landowner, οἰκοδεσπότης, connects this parable back to the previous uniquely Matthean parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matt 20.1–16.
The fourfold detail of planting the vineyard, protecting it, building a tower and digging a winepress in both Matthew and Mark (omitted in Luke) is a clear pointer to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5.1–7, and so it is also clear that here, as in Isaiah, ‘the vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel’. It might be possible to read the ‘tower’ as a reference to the temple, especially as this is where Jesus was teaching, but that is not necessary given the correspondence with the detail with Isaiah.
Jesus’ teaching here appears to follow the rabbinical practice of haggadic midrash, by taking a biblical text, expounding it with a parable, and concluding with another biblical text (Talbert p 251); if so, then the form of his teaching would have been no surprise to his hearers.
At some points, Matthew compresses the narrative of the parable, but at others expands it. Mark 12.2–5 sets out the escalation in the bad treatment of the slaves who are sent, where Matt 21.35–36 summarises what happens. We should probably translate doulos as ‘slave’ rather than servant, since Jews were very familiar with slavery in the empire, and many Jews kept slaves themselves; and yet slaves could be given significant responsibility, including managing tenant farms and collecting rents and other payments.
There is no need for us to consider that the parables of Jesus only have one main point, and contain no allegorical elements; it seems clear that the ‘slaves’ here stand for the prophets that God has sent to his people, who have all too often been rejected and persecuted by the established leadership of the nation.
From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff–necked and did more evil than their ancestors. (Jerusalem 7.25–26)
The theme of the ill-treatment and killing of prophets can be found both in the OT narrative (eg 2 Chron 24.17–21) and in NT reflection on this (Heb 11.37), and has been referred to by Jesus in Matt 5.11–12, something he will return to in Matt 23.29 in his diatribe against the Jerusalem leadership.
The wicked tenants stand for the leadership; again this has precedent in Ezekiel 34 in its criticism of Israel’s leaders, which is why the ‘chief priests and Pharisees perceived he was speaking about them’ (verse 45).
It is striking that the final action of the wicked tenants, against the owner’s son, is reported in a different order by Matthew; in Mark and Luke, they take him, kill him and cast him out, whereas here in Matt 21.39 they cast him out first and then kill him. Matthew is wanting us not to miss Jesus’ allusion here to his own death, in which he is taken outside of the city first, and then killed.
As with the previous parable, and contrary to Mark and Luke, instead of completing the parable himself, Jesus asks his opponents how the story should conclude—what action should the owner take against the wicked tenants? Once more, Jesus’ opponents are condemned by their own words, as they articulate the only course of action that is open to the owner. Justice requires that they are held to account for their wickedness. (This form of coming to a conclusion through dialogue in question and answer form is more true to the context of Jewish debate, and so we should perhaps take Matthew’s version as the more primitive.)
There are three things worth noting in Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement that follows, as he moves from the world of the parable to the world of his hearers.
First, there is a definitive sense of judgement here that is unavoidable. Jesus has previously articulated the justice of the judgement of God in his pithy aphorism, ‘With the measure you measure it will be measured to you’, memorable in both English and Greek (ἐν ᾧ μέτρῳ μετρεῖτε μετρηθήσεται ὑμῖν, Matt 7.2). The wicked tenants have measured out death and destruction to the slaves who have come to them, and so with that measure will justice be measured out to them.
Secondly, in contrast to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, here it is not the vineyard that is destroyed, but the tenants who have been entrusted with its care. Whatever the disastrous fate that overcomes the leadership of the nation, the Israel of God itself is not finished, but will come under new leadership. In Isaiah this only emerges as a secondary theme of hope following exile, with the possibility of the nation’s return and restoration. But in the teaching of Jesus the continuity of the nation is prominent even within the pronouncement of judgement over its leaders. God’s just judgement is always tempered with mercy; even though God’s people are unfaithful, God keeps faith.
If the vineyard in the parable is to be given to new tenants, what does that mean in the real world for Israel? Uniquely in Matthew, Jesus explains that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to another nation…’ (Matt 21.43). This time, we can see clearly why Matthew does not use the more general ‘kingdom of [the] heaven[s]’; the vineyard of the owner is the nation over which God rules as king. Some commentators draw a strong distinction between the present reality of the kingdom in the obedient people of Israel, as distinct from the future realisation of the kingdom of God in the eschatological parables. But there is no need for such a strong demarcation; the kingdom of God is realised, imperfectly and incompletely, now amongst the people of God in anticipation of its full realisation in the future.
But the giving of the kingdom ‘to another people’ cannot here be an indication of the kingdom being taken from the Jews and given to Gentiles, since Jesus uses the singular ethnos and not the plural ethne. When he combines this saying with his citation of Ps 118. 22–23, ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’, he is pointing beyond the killing of the owner’s son to his restoration and rule. The new nation who will live faithfully under the rule of God is, as elsewhere in this gospel, the Israel defined by their allegiance to Jesus (both Jew and Gentile) rather than Israel merely defined by ethnic identity.
Thirdly, this reconstituted Israel will be those who produce the ‘fruit’ that the master has been looking for. We have a tendency to interpret this term as pointing to qualities of life and personality, assisted by a particular reading of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in Gal 5.22. In fact it has quite a specific meaning here in pointing to the kind of holy life of repentance and action required by God, articulated by John the Baptist in Matt 3.8–10, and by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 7.16–20, 12.33–37). This is the Matthean equivalent of the teaching of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel ‘If you love me, you will obey my commandments’ (John 14.15).
All this leaves us with three important theological questions about God’s relationship with his people and with humanity.
First, does God judge? I am currently in conversation with someone online who is a fairly prominent author and commentator, who argues that all the language of judgement, of ‘outer darkness’ and of ‘fire’ is about purging and purifying, and not of ultimate judgement or destruction. He believes this because he is convinced that the ‘irreducible element of the gospel’ is that God only ever judges to forgive, and reveals to be merciful. There is no doubt that God surprises us with his mercy, and that God’s judgements will be surprising—and therefore that we need to leave judgement to God rather than try and anticipate it for ourselves. But there is also no doubt that this kind of universalism is appealing to our culture, and is very hard to square with Jesus’ language of judgement throughout the gospels. The possibility of judgement is inseparable from the freedom and responsibility that God gives us; without it, the gospel is not something that calls for response, but is reduced to an insight that we need to attain, a new way of seeing the world rather than a new way of life to respond to and embrace through costly obedience.
Secondly, does God judge Israel? One danger of reading this and the texts that follow is that, taken out of context, they can be read as anti-Judaic. In his theological reflection on this section, Talbert notes three reasons why we should not take Jesus’ polemic in this way.
First, the First Evangelist is a Jewish teacher in conflict with other Jewish teachers in a diverse Jewish community of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the first century. With his polemics, Matthew’s Jesus seeks to delegitimate the established leadership. He does not deny the fundamental legitimacy of Israel. To do so would destroy the basis for his own group (p 262).
He notes that Jesus’ language here echo the classical prophets’ own critique of Israel (eg Is 3.13–15, and of course Isaiah 5), the Essenes, Josephus, rabbinical writings, and in fact the Pharisees’ own criticism of Jesus (Matt 9.34, 12.24).
His second reason is that ‘Matthew’s critique reflects Mediterranean conventions of dealing with opponents’.
The way Matthew talks about Jews is the way all opponents talked about each other in the ancients Mediterranean world. Compared to other polemic of the time, Matthew’s language is a bit mild! (ibid)
But thirdly, Matthew is writing not merely to tell a story of the past, or remind his readers of what Jesus said and taught then—but also to teach his readers about their present.
Matthews’ language, whilst seeming to be directed to nonmessianist opponents, is really aimed at insiders with the Matthean community. The evangelist is using the technique of covert allusion…The warning for the church is that its members must not be like the scribes and Pharisees, for if God did not spare Jerusalem, God will certainly not spare an unfaithful church (p 262–3).
That is not in any way to suggest that our salvation is unsure, or that we should question God’s faithfulness. But it is a reminder faith without actions is dead, and that real trust in Jesus will always make itself known in the fruit of repentance lives, as the Holy Spirit shapes us in holiness.