24 September 2014

Matthew 21: 33-46: the wicked tenants and
the stone that becomes the cornerstone

‘Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do …’ (Matthew 21: 40) … vineyards, vines, groves and terraces in Tuscany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Brown Room

24 September 2014

9 a.m., Tutorial Group


Tutorial groups in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute offer opportunities for small group worship, for Bible study, and to plan community worship for the weeks a tutorial group is planning.

This Tutorial Group is responsible for worship and chapel life this week (Week 1, beginning 22 September 2014), and for planning the Ash Wednesday Retreat.

In the past this tutorial group, for its Bible studies, has looked at, among others:

● Saint John’s Gospel

● The Johannine Letters (I, II and III John)

● The Pastoral Epistles (I Timothy, II Timothy and Titus)

● The Book of Revelation

● The Gospel reading for Sunday week, so students have opportunities to prepare in advance both for preaching and for actively hearing the Gospel on placements.

For this morning’s Tutorial Group, I have prepared a short Bible study based on the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for Sunday week, 5 October 2014 [the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, Proper 22]: Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46.

The context:

It is important, when preaching on a Lectionary reading, to make connections with the other readings that Sunday. You may decide, for example, to preach on the Gospel reading, but it may be one of the other readings that has caught the imagination of the people you need to reach. Making connections helps to bring people on the journey with you.

So, just a little note on the other readings for Sunday week:

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20:

The Old Testament reading is the account of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. They have left their past behind them and this is the moment that marks the starting point of Israel as a self-defining community. A new covenant is made between God and Israel but, unlike God’s agreements with Noah and Abraham, here both parties have a stake in it, and either can break it.

This scene of God’s presence among people ends as it began (in Exodus 19: 16-19) with “thunder and lightning” (verse 18), trumpet blasts and “the mountain smoking.” But it ends too with Moses telling the people: “Do not be afraid …” (verse 20), words that we come later to associate with the Risen Lord.

Psalm 19:

Many of us are familiar with this Psalm because the concluding verse (14) has traditionally been used in the Church of Ireland to introduce sermons: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

In Psalm 19, the heavens and the earth also proclaim God’s glory and power (verses 1-6), the covenant is an expression of God’s will for Israel (verses 7-9), and we are reminded that the “fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever” (verse 9). This Psalm also links God’s judgement with God’s forgiveness. Note too the description of the psalmist as God’s “servant” (verses 11, 13).

Philippians 3: 4b-14

Saint Paul has warned his readers about those who try to convince them that being a Christian requires accepting Jewish law, including circumcision. But true circumcision is of the heart and not of the “flesh”, in other words paying more heed to the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

He is as Jewish as one can be, and he once persecuted Christians and faultlessly kept the Law. But he is not afraid to lose everything for the sake of gaining everything the Risen Christ has to offer (verses 8-10). He has left his past behind and looks forward to the goal and the heavenly prize that lies ahead (verses 13-14).

Matthew 21: 33-46

33 [λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς,] Ἄλλην παραβολὴν ἀκούσατε. Ἄνθρωπος ἦν οἰκοδεσπότης ὅστις ἐφύτευσεν ἀμπελῶνα καὶ φραγμὸν αὐτῷ περιέθηκεν καὶ ὤρυξεν ἐν αὐτῷ ληνὸν καὶ ᾠκοδόμησεν πύργον, καὶ ἐξέδετο αὐτὸν γεωργοῖς, καὶ ἀπεδήμησεν. 34 ὅτε δὲ ἤγγισεν ὁ καιρὸς τῶν καρπῶν, ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ πρὸς τοὺς γεωργοὺς λαβεῖν τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτοῦ. 35 καὶ λαβόντες οἱ γεωργοὶ τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὃν μὲν ἔδειραν, ὃν δὲ ἀπέκτειναν, ὃν δὲ ἐλιθοβόλησαν. 36 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους πλείονας τῶν πρώτων, καὶ ἐποίησαν αὐτοῖς ὡσαύτως. 37 ὕστερον δὲ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ λέγων, Ἐντραπήσονται τὸν υἱόν μου. 38 οἱ δὲ γεωργοὶ ἰδόντες τὸν υἱὸν εἶπον ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ κληρονόμος: δεῦτε ἀποκτείνωμεν αὐτὸν καὶ σχῶμεν τὴν κληρονομίαν αὐτοῦ. 39 καὶ λαβόντες αὐτὸν ἐξέβαλον ἔξω τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος καὶ ἀπέκτειναν. 40 ὅταν οὖν ἔλθῃ ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος, τί ποιήσει τοῖς γεωργοῖς ἐκείνοις; 41 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Κακοὺς κακῶς ἀπολέσει αὐτούς, καὶ τὸν ἀμπελῶνα ἐκδώσεται ἄλλοις γεωργοῖς, οἵτινες ἀποδώσουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς καρποὺς ἐν τοῖς καιροῖς αὐτῶν.

42 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς,

Λίθονὃν ἀπεδοκίμασαν οἱ οἰκοδομοῦντες
οὗτος ἐγενήθη εἰς κεφαλὴν γωνίας:
παρὰ κυρίου ἐγένετο αὕτη,
καὶ ἔστιν θαυμαστὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν;

43 διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἀρθήσεται ἀφ' ὑμῶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ δοθήσεται ἔθνει ποιοῦντι τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτῆς. 44 [Καὶ ὁ πεσὼν ἐπὶ τὸν λίθον τοῦτον συνθλασθήσεται: ἐφ' ὃν δ' ἂν πέσῃ λικμήσει αὐτόν.]

45 Καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι τὰς παραβολὰς αὐτοῦ ἔγνωσαν ὅτι περὶ αὐτῶν λέγει: 46 καὶ ζητοῦντες αὐτὸν κρατῆσαι ἐφοβήθησαν τοὺς ὄχλους, ἐπεὶ εἰς προφήτην αὐτὸν εἶχον.

New Revised Standard Version:

33 [Jesus said to them:] ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41 They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

43 ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realised that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ (Matthew 21: 42) ... a cross cut into a cornerstone in the main church in the Monastery of Vlatádon in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The parable of the wicked tenants as it stands in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is an allegory that emphasises the murder of God’s Son by Israel’s leaders and the transfer of Israel’s privileges to the church. The synoptic parallels are Mark 12: 1-12 and Luke 20: 9-19.

However, this passage comes with a “health warning” and needs to be treated with great care. It began as a prophetic critique by a Jew of fellow Jews, designed not to damn Israel but to provoke repentance. In the course of Christian history, this passage and others like it were abused to advocate anti-Semitism, and even by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust.

In addition, these readings raise the danger of preaching what is now called “Supersessionism,” the theological view that the Church has replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Although this view has been common throughout the history of Christianity and remains a common assumption among many Christians, since the Holocaust it has been rejected by mainstream Christian theologians and denominations.

The members of the Sanhedrin who first heard this parable would recall Isaiah 5: 1-7, which is the alternative Old Testament reading in the RCL for Proper 22. In that passage, God tells what will happen to his unfruitful “vineyard”, “the house of Israel, and the people of Judah.”

In the parable we are looking at, the landowner plants the vineyard, leases it out, and leaves. At harvest time, he sends successive sets of slaves “to collect his produce.” All are mistreated. When he sends his son, he is killed. If a landowner died without an heir, the land passed to the first claimant, so by killing the son (presumably the only one), the tenants become landowners. Jesus’ hearers answer his question: the first tenants will suffer “a miserable death” (verse 41) and other tenants will be found who will deliver.

Here, the landowner stands for God, the first tenants for Israel’s leaders, and the time the landowner is away for their period of stewardship of God’s chosen people. So the second tenants are replacements for Israel, probably those who follow Christ.

In verse 43, we are told that it is disastrous to oppose God and his patience will be exhausted. The leaders of Israel recognise his reference to Isaiah. If Christ were not so widely accepted as God’s “prophet” by the crowds who they feared, they would have arrested him (verse 46).

Some observations:

Verse 33: This verse almost directly quotes the opening lines of Isaiah’s parable (see Isaiah 5: 1-7, the Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard).

Verse 35: “beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” The parallel in Saint Mark’s Gospel lacks the stoning of a slave. Could this be a reference to the later stoning of Saint James in the year 62? (see Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9)

Verse 37: “his son.” Saint Matthew omits the word “beloved” used by Saint Mark (see Mark 6: 12). There is nothing in the text to identify the son as Christ. In Christ’s telling of the parable, this is true, but in Saint Matthew’s telling of the story, and among those he is writing for, is the son Christ?

Verse 38: “This is the heir.” Notice how the tenants leap to a rash conclusion. They can only take what belongs to the son and heir if his father is already dead. But the landowner is alive and can punish them.

Verse 39: In Saint Mark’s Gospel (see 12: 8), the son is seized, then killed, then thrown out. But see how Saint Matthew changes the order – perhaps to fit the view that Jesus died outside the city. (See also John 19: 17; Hebrews 13: 12-13.)

Verse 41: Christ has already sais (see 8: 11-12): “‘I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.” (See also Acts 13: 46; 18: 6; 28: 28.)

Verse 42: Here Christ is quoting from Psalm 118: 22-23 to support his teaching. These verses are also quoted in Acts 4: 11 and I Peter 2: 7.

Verse 43: Christ’s conclusion is milder than the chief priests and elders have expected. The wicked tenants will not be destroyed, but they will lose the promise.

Verse 43: “the kingdom of God.” In this context, probably the full end-time blessing.

Some questions

Are the slaves the prophets killed by Israel, culminating in Christ as the son?

Is Jesus “the son” (verse 38, Aramaic: ben) and the “stone” (verse 42, ‘eben)? This makes the connection between the parable and the saying that follows.

Who are the “other tenants” (verse 41) and “a people” (verse 43)?

Are these the Church as the true Israel?

Remember that for Saint Matthew the Church, the true Israel, is made up of believing Jews and converted Gentiles – how does this connect with what Saint Paul is saying to the Philippians in our Epistle reading?

Trying to read the text afresh and anew

‘There was a landlord who planted a vineyard’ ... grapes ripening on the vine in the Hedgehog in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is sometimes said that the parables are ways in which Christ makes truth more accessible, taking complicated theological ideas and rephrasing them in terms that anyone can understand. But sometimes he says he is telling his parables for the opposite reason, so that the crowds might not understand (see Matthew 13: 1-9, Mark 4: 1-9, and Luke 8: 9-10).

When confronted with these puzzling parables, we are sometimes tempted to resolve the ambiguities by interpreting them allegorically. We start out by deciding immediately the characters, the objects and the actions represent; we decide before we interpret or try to apply those parables which character or object represents God, which one is Christ, who represent the Disciples, and so on.

In other words, we try to harmonise difficult parables with our own already-formed views, rather than allowing those parables to challenge and reshape our views.

But Christ tries through his parables to get us to challenge what we already presume to be simply true.

In this parable, do we read it this morning in the way we have learned to read it? We already presume the landowner is God. God sends messengers to people (in particular, to Israel). The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill the son. So God is going to reject Israel and choose another people. But how well does the parable really fit that interpretation? How well does that interpretation fit the weight of the canon regarding the role of Israel?

As a point of comparison, it might be useful to look at the theology of Israel in Saint Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, where we find a continuing and central role for Israel. There the invitation extended to Gentiles through Christ is to join Israel, God’s people.

At the apostolic council in Jerusalem (see Acts 15), the Christian leaders present include Pharisees (see verse 5) include Pharisees – not former Pharisees, but Pharisees. In Acts (23: 6), Saint Paul continues to identify himself as a Pharisee – not as a former Pharisee.

For Saint Luke, the vineyard of Israel has not been taken away to be given to others. Instead, Christ has opened it to new workers called to gather in God’s abundant harvest.

The setting of the parable is the estate of a wealthy landowner. This landowner does not live on the land, and does not work at planting or harvesting. The hard work is carried out by the hired labourers, who must turn over most of what they grow to the landowner. The landowner in the parallel parable in Luke 19 is a harsh, demanding man, reaping what he does not sow (see Luke 19: 20).

This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to collect the profits from their labour that sustain his life of ease in the cosmopolitan city where he lives.

In Saint Matthew’s version of parable, the farmers have had enough. The next time the landowner sends one of his servants to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. Forget how you have consistently read this parable for years. Those who listened to Christ telling this parable for the first time probably smiled at the demanding landlord getting a revolutionary response from the exploited tenants living on the edge and on the margins.

After all, Saint Paul tells us in the Pastoral Epistles: “for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The labourer deserves to be paid’.” (I Timothy 5: 18).

Then the landowner sends another agent to collect the rent. Again, the farmers get together to send him away empty-handed. More cause for rejoicing among the first listeners.

Then the son of the landowner arrives. He has a different standing than the messengers. He is the son, perhaps the “beloved son,” probably the only son. If he is the heir and the landowner had died, then he has inherited the estate himself. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers have been resisting years of what they feel has been exploitation, and now they rise up and kill the son.

But the twist in the story is that the landowner is not dead. He does exactly what we expect him to do in the circumstances. He wreaks revenge, slaughters the farmers and replaces them with others. He does this so he can return to his life of ease in the city, living on the income provided by the labour of others.

But no-one among those who hear this ending to the story for the first time would hardly regard it as comforting or good news.

The chief priests and the scribes who are listening the audience, and who come from the same social class as the rich landowner and his hirelings, must realise that they have just heard a scathing condemnation from Christ of how they exploit their fellow Jews.

The peasants or tenant farmers who hear the story are reminded that escalating the spiral of violence only results in more violence being visited upon them and their children.

Everyone who listens is challenged to rethink their prejudices and their judgmental values.

In this, the parable is a challenge to us today.

In what ways are we like the absentee landlord, dependent on others’ exploitation to support our lives of relative ease?

How much do we consume without knowing or caring about where our clothes, our coffee, our computers, our gadgets and toys come from, or about cost to poor people and the environments in which they live?

In what ways are we like the agents, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right, to escalate interpersonal and international conflict in ways that will be visited upon generations to come?

And in what ways are we responding to Christ’s challenge to care for those the world disregards and to disregard the world’s standards of strength and honour?

As Sarah Dylan write, Christ challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we discard when want newer and better ones, as we do for our own children.

Christ challenges us to bless and honour the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.


who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:
Eternal God,
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

A vineyard on the slopes at Fattoria il Poggia outside Montecarlo, near Lucca in Tuscany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Additional reading for this posting: SarahLaughed.net, Proper 22, Year A.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 24 September 2014.

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