XVIII Pentecost, Year A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus said, "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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, `They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 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."
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’?
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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
There will be a tendency today to preach this parable through the lens of some sort of supercessionism. Some will argue that Judaism is being replaced by Christianity, that Jesus is foretelling the destruction of one religion and inaugurating another. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our parable is not about the end of the Jewish religion. To read it this way is to engage in anti-Semitism. The parable today does indeed have a salvation historical referent in the vineyard metaphor (cf Isa 5). And it is addressed to Jewish leadership, more so, it is addressed specifically to leaders of the sacrificial system, the substitutionary mechanism whereby violence becomes its own remedy.
Some will preach that Jesus is foretelling only the end of Judaism in its sacrificial aspects (not in its moral ones) because He is the ultimate sacrifice. The rejection of Jesus by the authorities in the parable will become (in their preaching) the rejection of Jesus by God (the penal theory of the atonement). But to claim Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice is to miss the key New Testament observation that Jesus’ death (his self-sacrifice) is the end of sacrifice. Jesus’ death is not Yes to sacrifice; it is the great No of God to sacrifice.
The shift of Matthew in vs 41, whereby it is not Jesus but the religious authorities that proclaim judgment on the tenants is crucial. This follows Matthew’s emphasis on judgment-of-others being self-judgment. “It was decisive that the people who acted in this way were not aware of the process of self-judgment in themselves. There was a great gulf between their evaluation of themselves and their actual activities. They thought that they were only (with right on their side) judging Jesus, and not themselves, and it escaped their notice that their judgment of him was in truth a ganging together against him. Those judging intended to judge another and not themselves. But in the light of Jesus’ love for his enemies, which came from the heavenly Father, their activity is shown up as self-deception, by which they only shifted their own guilt. The self-judgment whose mechanism Jesus opened up and against which he warned people consists not in explicit self-accusation (such a thing, carried out in humility, would be healing), but in the contradiction between the word and deed and thereby in the concealment of guilt and the shifting of evil onto others.” (Raymund Schwager Jesus in the Drama of Salvation)
A mimetic theoretical approach to preaching this parable is thus justified to see an implicit critique of Christianity practiced as a sacrificial religion and thus, is able to point out the ways Christians continue to utilize the victimage mechanism in extruding and scapegoating others.
Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s observation on this parable from Mark’s gospel are apropos here: “The authority from men operates by expelling and killing; the authority from heaven operates by including and vindicating. The force of the metaphor is that the sacrificial system of the Temple, which symbolizes the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism, is replaced by a system that takes its point of departure from the stone that the builders rejected, the victim, and exercises the authority of heaven.” (The Gospel and the Sacred)
This parable can be preached as the demise of sacrificial Christianity. Are we not able to find scores of contemporary examples of Christian leaders justifying extrusion, expelling and even murder? Are there not a plethora of examples of Christian churches and denominations engaging in the sacrifice of others based upon race, religion, gender, political affiliation or sexual orientation? Is it possible to suggest that modern Christian theology is also implicated in this destructuring of victimage when it contends that God is violent or in need of sacrifice?
As long as the point of view of the victim is suppressed, as long as we do not engage a ‘hermeneutic from below’, as long as we continue to proclaim a retributive God are we also not bringing ourselves face to face with the god inside us, the god of retribution and violence, a god to be feared, a false god, an idol, a trick of metaphysical self-transcendence? And surely then, can we not see that in judging others we judge ourselves and in so doing place ourselves in the queue of potential ‘guilty’ victims that grease the sacrificial mechanism of human culture? We ought, as Christian leaders, to tremble a little today when we get ready to preach this text.
When it comes to the problem of violence and God it would appear at the outset that today’s parable simply confirms our worst fears, namely that Jesus affirms the retaliatory God. The tenants of the vineyard will be brought to a wretched end. However, as Girard notes in Things Hidden, Matthew’s parable has a slight but crucial difference from Mark and Luke in that it is not Jesus who announces the demise of the tenants but Jesus’ interlocutors. This slight difference has several implications.
Many have argued that the Matthean version of the parable (and the judgment saying of vs 41) is secondary which would appear to vitiate Girard’s observation. Gundry (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art), e.g.: “The insertion of ‘they say to him’ makes Matthew’s version of the judgmental statement a dramatic self-sentencing by the chief priests and elders of the people.” Beare (The Gospel according to Matthew) suggests that this redaction “is not in keeping with the statement ‘they perceived that he was speaking about them.’ Curiously Schnakenburg (The Gospel of Matthew) sees the parable not addressing the Temple leadership but the audience “whom we ought to think of as ordinary persons (cf vs 46).” But would ordinary people have either the right or the authority to arrest Jesus?
The first implication concerns the original format of the parable. Many have argued that the Markan-Thomas form is original and that Matthew has heavily redacted the parable proper. However, this is by no means a consensus, and there are good reasons for believing that the parable as it stands in Matthew may be more original (see Klyne Snodgrass The Parable of the Wicked Tenants). We are aware of Matthew’s tendency to engage in midrash on Mark and we would not be surprised that he also interprets this parable for his community. So? Is it not our task then to follow the hermeneutic provided by Matthew and not one of our own devising?
If Matthew has in fact redacted the saying of vs 41 so that it becomes self-referential he is doing so as it reflects the function of the parable: parables are intended to create a self-referentiality, so Matthew’s ‘redaction’ simply reflects Jesus’ shift from perceiving judgment as a prerogative of God to that of self-judgment (as Schwager has noted).
On the other hand it is also possible that the Synoptic gospels redact the words into the mouth of Jesus so that the parable reflects the ruination of the Temple leadership post 70 C.E. The Gospel of Thomas has no reference to our vs 41, ending with the death of the son, the stone saying and the logion “the one with ears to hear, listen!”
J. & R. Newell “Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Novum Testamentum 14: 226-37) argue against any Christological significance of the parable tracing the original form of the parable to Jesus interaction with “Zealot” movements. Their study has been criticized as it now assumed that there was no organized Zealot movement as such during Jesus’ day. However, that there were movements of revolt that engaged violence as a means to an end is incontrovertible and their remarks on the potential background of the parable are illuminating. They suggest that the parable is about the ineffectiveness of violence as a means of social transformation. It may well have been in its original form but is it too much to think that at the end of his ministry that Jesus was able to see that his death (‘son’ ‘stone’) would undo the violent structures that governed human culture and its sacrificial mechanisms? We do not find their interpretation to be incongruous with a Christological approach. Indeed, there is a structural congruity between both interpretations. Both show the way that violence will ultimately bring the end of the effectiveness of violence, either through the retaliation of human agents or the identification of God with the victim.
The Newells point out that, “to kill the foreign son of a foreign landowner in order to regain a vineyard for Israel would not be an atrocity, but a hero’s accomplishment. But the question that Jesus puts to his hearers has a different twist. He does not ask the listeners if they think that the tenants were right in what they did. Instead he asks, ‘what will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants?’ The answer that they must give to the question forces them to realize that violent methods are not expedient in that situation…The hearers of the parable are forced to a conclusion that they would not normally accept: that the logical outcome of such tactics is self-destruction…Jesus does not attack the goals of the tenants (or Zealots) but only their methods.
Perhaps what Jesus here recognizes is that violent men, men who advocate and use violence to obtain their goals, often end up working against their own ends. Their violent means often lead to their own destruction and this to the frustration of the worthwhile goals they aimed for.”
I can see where the Newell’s are going in their argument and think something is to be said for the potential ‘revolt’ background of the parable, but that is because the rejection of the ‘son’ ‘stone’ is the revolutionary act that will turn the tide of culture and it will be done non-violently (or in a forgiving manner). Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus appear to be sympathetic to issues relating to the Land as such, which along with Torah and Temple was (is) one of the major pillars of Jewish culture.
A Short Note on the Jesus Seminar’s Jesus and Gospel Hermeneutics
Several years back the Jesus Seminar came out with a portrait of Jesus that has captured the imagination of too many. With the imprimatur of ‘scholarship’ this ‘Jesus’ has become some sort of standard by which we are to intellectually measure all of our Jesuses. If our portraits are not consonant with that Jesus then they do not represent historical reality as defined by scholarship; this is human reason at the apogee of hubris.
I must insist with Luther that ‘reason is the Devil’s Whore.’ The hubris of the ‘academy’ is predicated upon a false description of what constitutes history, fact and reality. The ‘reality’ of far too much of the academy is the ‘reality’ of dualism constructed within the framework of the victimage mechanism grounded in the violent logos (logos, discourse). The ‘academic’ Jesus will therefore never be the living Lord of the gospels. The academic Jesus lacks the power and authority to change, renew, invigorate, enliven. The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is emasculated and is almost good for nothing, the Jesus of the gospels is good for everything.
In the final analysis the Jesus Seminar ends up in the position it most violently opposes, namely the verbal inspiration theory. The former is a minimalist stance, the latter a maximalist stance but both are on the same plane of reifying language and ascribing authority (transcendence) to language. The quest for ipsissima verba needs to be juxtaposed to the unitary Christological understanding of the Evangelists. The purely historical quest for Jesus will always end up as ennui (a dead end) if it does not recognize that it is the Living Lord that is being borne witness to in the Gospels, and this can only be seen in faith.
I affirm the academy’s quest to re-picture Jesus. They are correct to observe that the Jesus of Christianity is not representative of the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus of Christianity has become too mired in dogma and doctrine, too sunk in violence, too removed from humanity. But the questers, not being aware of the structuring role violence plays, end up almost always talking about a revolutionary Jesus
in one form or another, an historical figure who preached the violence of the apocalypse. It was not the early church that figured out the relation of violence to culture, that was Jesus. The early church figured out the relation of Jesus’ death (the violence done to him) in relation to human culture.
I am not an anti-intellectual nor do I think that human reason cannot be redeemed. On the contrary I believe that a true intellectual will not be afraid of the Bible’s content and will find that the biblical narrative, once removed from the dualism of ‘logical’ thought, reveals precisely what the academic most cherishes, namely intellectual freedom. There is great grace and freedom when one comes under the spell of divine logic (the logos of John 1).
When I come to passages like ours today where there are substantial questions about authenticity I am not afraid to get in there and mix it up. But in the long run I do not need to explain a text like our parable as a post historical Jesus text. The real question is not whether our parable is authentic but whether we can we explain the differences of the gospel tradition within a consistent hermeneutic framework.
So, e,g,, Matthew has the judgment saying stem from the interlocutors in keeping with his hermeneutic whereby judgment is self-referential (cf 7:1-5). Mark and Luke focus on the son’s deconstructing of the sacrificial mechanism of the Temple. In neither case are we dealing with Jesus’ condemning people as persons, or religions as faith traditions, but in all cases the texts are foretelling the son’s role in bringing about the apocalyptic crisis of the end of the sacrificial powers represented by the Temple and religious authorities. In short this parable is about the death of God, the god of sacrifice and violence and the role of the death of the son in displacing the god of violence with a new vision of God.
This is seen in the stone saying (which is also included as the ending of the version of the parable in Thomas). The stone saying reflects Jesus’ understanding of his death in the context of Sacrificial Death (Religion). Klyne Snodgrass sees an underlying play on words in Aramaic in the terms ‘son’ (bn) and ‘stone’ (‘bn). Even if it is argued that this juxtaposition of the stone saying and the parable was formatted in the early Jewish community (Jerusalem?) and reflects the preaching of this Aramaic speaking community (cf Acts 2 & 4), still it is a hermeneutic shift consonant with Jesus’ self-understanding (e.g., the death of the Son of Man sayings). If it goes back to Jesus, it is possible to see how this hermeneutic is reflected in the early Jewish Christian community and how they perceived the links between Jesus’ death and the founding murder.
How much more post modern can we become? Everything is become flux and change. Are we not experiencing a global sacrificial crisis? Do we not see failure after failure of violence effectively restoring social order? Can it not be said that our cultural mechanisms for restoring order via victimage (scapegoating) are deteriorating, becoming less effective and more unstable? And do we not rejoice? And why not, for as we preach the gospel and unmask the lies of violence do we not also share in bringing about that breakdown?
Yes, and we do rejoice. Not in any form of human suffering, for which we grieve, but we rejoice that humans causing humans suffering is coming to an end. We rejoice that the Prince of Peace will finally stop the human project and announce the restoration of all things, including especially humanity, humanity assumed in the incarnation and vindicated and empowered in the resurrection. Yes indeed, we rejoice for we know that even as our cultural systems break down further and further and as anarchy and chaos break out, there is one who is more powerful than death. He is the Life. And in the chaos, confusion and darkness, He is the Way. And among all the lies of the guilt, blame and shame of victimage and violence, He is the Truth.
We do not live for this world (for the falsely constructed reality of civilization/culture), but living in it, we are called to preach peace, the peace that passes understanding. Sometimes this means naming (not labeling) the victimage mechanism in its concrete manifestations. As Jesus was not afraid to parable the leaders of sacrifice in his time, so too we are called to parable our own sacrificial leadership; we are called to question their authority and announce a new authority, an authority from heaven.