Sunday, October 1, 2023

Resurrection: The Return of the Rejected

Below is a rough translation and some stream-of-reading comments about Matthew 21:33-46, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. If you would like to see an alternating reading of Isaiah 5:1-7 (the Song of the Vineyard) and Matthew 21:33-46 (the Parable of the Vineyard) in two voices, click here

I am doing something somewhat peculiar as we read along. I am looking at v.41, when Jesus has put a question to the chief priests and elders, asking what the lord of the vineyard should do in response to the tenant farmers’ treatment of his servants and even his son. They answer the question in a way that condemns them – as anyone who has already read the end of this pericope knows (see v.43). I’m trying to ferret out how they might be hearing the parable, to answer in the way that they do. I suspect that their answer is based on what they believe to be a biblical representation of how God works in the world.

While it is customary for 21st century Christians to read this story simply knowing that these people are evil and wrong, I think that is too simplistic of an approach to this story (and, frankly, is intertwined with anti-Semitic readings of the NT in general.) In the end, the chief priests and elders are horribly – even damnably – wrong, but not because they are Jews who believe Jewish things. I believe Jesus is immersed in an ongoing argument throughout Israel’s history of how God works in the world. It is a question that was sharpened over time by Israel’s subjection to imperial powers – Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. It was an argument over ambiguous history – Pharaoh saved Israel from starvation, but a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph arose and oppressed Israel; The Persian General/King Cyrus is called “God’s anointed,” when he overthrew Babylon and allowed Israel to return home from exile; etc. It was an argument over ambiguous heroes – Joseph dressed like an Egyptian and even ate separately from his brothers because Egyptians considered it an abomination to eat with Israelites. But, Daniel did not dress like Babylonians or eat like them. One story seems to imply that the way to be faithful under imperial reign is to conform and let God work with you there. That may be behind Jeremiah’s word to the exiles to thrive in the cities where they are exiled. Another story seems to imply that the way to be faithful under imperial reign is to maintain one’s distinctive habits of dress and food and prayer and not-bowing to idols and, even if they feed you to the fire or to the lions, God will save you.

I believe that is the ongoing argument at work behind this parable, at least as far as the chief priests and elders are hearing it. That would explain their answer in v.41.

Jesus’ response to them in vv. 42-43 changes everything in two ways. First, it introduces another alternative to the “How shall we be faithful in the Empire?” argument – the wonder-filled power of God to make the rejected stone the cornerstone. (I have a sense that Jesus’ perspective here is more in line with the second half of Daniel than other approaches to this question.) Second, Jesus shifts the focus dramatically from the imperial regime to the chief priests and elders themselves as being the unfaithful tenants. That would suggest how Jesus interprets the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1-7.

Okay, enough! On with the text!

33  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. 
Hear another parable. “A man was a householder who planted a vineyard and put a hedge around it and digged in it a wine-press and built a tower, and leased it out to tenant farmers, and went abroad.
ἀκούσατε: AAImpv 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 2) to hear 
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐφύτευσεν: AAI 3s, φυτεύω, 1) to plant
περιέθηκεν: AAI 3s, περιτίθημι, 1) to place around, set about  2) to put on a garment  3) to put or bind a thing around another 
ὤρυξεν: AAI 3s, ὀρύσσω, 1) to dig
ᾠκοδόμησεν: AAI 3s, οἰκοδομέω, 1) to build a house, erect a building 
ἐξέδετο: AMI 3s, ἐκδίδωμι, 1) to give out, to deliver out, place out, to give out on hire, let out.
ἀπεδήμησεν: AAI 3s, ἀποδημέω,1) to go away into foreign parts, go abroad
1. The KJV and Young’s Literal Translation render γεωργοῖς as “husbandmen.” I typically think of ‘husbandry’ as animal-related and this is a vineyard and winery. The word γεωργοῖς (georgois) has γεω (geo/earth) in it, so I think ‘tenant farmers’ is a fair modern translation.
2. This story echoes “The Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1-7, especially v.2, the LXX of which reads: καὶ φραγμὸν περιέθηκα καὶ ἐχαράκωσα καὶ ἐφύτευσαἄμπελον σωρηχ καὶ ᾠκοδόμησα πύργον ἐν μέσῳ αὐτοῦ καὶ προλήνιον ὤρυξα ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἔμεινα τοῦ ποιῆσαισ τα φυλήν ἐποίησεν δὲ ἀκάνθας, He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3. While this is an echo, it is a revision of Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard. In Isaiah’s story, the vineyard itself goes bad, rending wild grapes and not cultivated grapes. In Jesus’ story, the focus shifts to the keepers of the vineyard – those who are responsible for the cultivation and, in this case, the chief priests and Pharisees (v.45). As Paul Ricoeur says, the nature of intertextuality is for one text to receive meaning from a prior text and to give it new meaning.

34ὅτε δὲ ἤγγισεν  καιρὸς τῶν καρπῶν, ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ πρὸς 
τοὺς γεωργοὺς λαβεῖν τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτοῦ. 
Yet when the time came of the fruits, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to receive his fruits.
ἤγγισεν: AAI 3s, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another 2) to draw or come near to, to approach
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 
λαβεῖν: AAInf, λαμβάνω, 1) to take, to receive
1. So far, this story reflects common practice. It may be told in a context of resentment, since the tenant farmers would be those who have become landless along the way and the householder would be one who has aggregated land along the way. That social dynamic is expressly condemned in the verses that directly follow The Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:8, “Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live along in the midst of the land!”)
If we are inclined to hear this story as a story of the oppressed lashing out against the oppressor, then we might have some measure of sympathy with the tenant farmers. However, it seems to me that whatever historical context we might posit for the story has to yield to the flow of the story itself. In the story itself, the tenant farmers’ actions seem more egregious than justifiable.

35καὶ λαβόντες οἱ γεωργοὶ τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὃν μὲν ἔδειραν, ὃν δὲ 
ἀπέκτειναν, ὃν δὲ ἐλιθοβόλησαν. 
And the tenant farmers took his servants one of whom they beat, and one of whom they killed, and one of whom they stoned. 
λαβόντες: AAPart npm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take, to receive
ἔδειραν: AAI 3p, δέρω, 1) to flay, skin  2) to beat, thrash, smite
ἀπέκτειναν: AAI 3p, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever 
ἐλιθοβόλησαν: AAI 3p, λιθοβολέω, 1) to kill by stoning, to stone  2) to pelt one with stones
1. With regard to the one whom they “stoned”: I am keeping an eye on vv.42 and 44 and wondering if the stones of this stoning (v.35) and the stone that was rejected then returned (v.42) and the stone that crushes (v.44) are related.
2. The verb λαμβάνω can mean “to take” or “to receive,” depending on how it is being used. It seems ironic that the servant was sent to “take/receive” the householder’s fruit and the tenant farmers “take/receive” the servants.
3. I have to wonder about the connection between this violent description and Jesus’ condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees, even of Jerusalem, in Mt.23:34-37: “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

36 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους πλείονας τῶν πρώτων, καὶ ἐποίησαν 
αὐτοῖς ὡσαύτως. 
Again he sent other servants more than the first ones, and they did to them the same.
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 
ἐποίησαν: AAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc. 
1. One way to read this parable – so far – might be to see it as a description of Israel’s history under imperial regimes, whether Egypt or Babylon or Greece or Rome. In some theological interpretations of Israel’s history, there were arguments that, because of Israel’s unfaithfulness God had ‘leased out’ God’s vineyard to those empires, by allowing Israel and Judah to be captive to them. Then, when God sent servants to retrieve what is God’s own, those empires dealt cruelly with them.
I admit that this seems like a stretch. But, I am trying to account for how the chief priests and elder might be hearing the story, based on their reaction in v.41. If they are imagining themselves as God’s servants, this might be how they are hearing the parable.

37 ὕστερον δὲ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ λέγων, Ἐντραπήσονται τὸν υἱόν μου. 
Yet finally he sent to them his son saying, “They will revere my son.”
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ἐντραπήσονται: FPI 3p, ἐντρέπω, 1) to shame one  2) to be ashamed  3) to reverence a person  4) to turn about 
1. It appears odd that the possible definitions of ἐντρέπω are either “to shame” or “to reverence,” but the verb itself seems to refer to the ‘turn inward’ that leads one to either reverence or shame. John Calvin’s observation may be helpful here, when he said that our awe before the holiness of God leads us to shame of our own sinfulness. ἐντρέπω might be the pivot between the two.
2. With the introduction of “his son,” every Christian in the world now hears this as a parable about God sending Jesus. Fair enough. But, the next question is the tricky one. Who, then, are the tenants? The Roman Empire, for whom crucifixion was a unique form of execution? The religious leaders, much to the dismay of the chief priests and elders who would then announce their own verdict in v.41?

38 οἱ δὲ γεωργοὶ ἰδόντες τὸν υἱὸν εἶπον ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ κληρονόμος: 
δεῦτε ἀποκτείνωμεν αὐτὸν καὶ σχῶμεν τὴν κληρονομίαν αὐτοῦ. 
Yet the tenant farmers, seeing the son, said to themselves, “This is the heir; Come, let us kill him and let us keep his inheritance.
ἰδόντες: AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
εἶπον: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἀποκτείνωμεν:  AASubj 1p, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever
σχῶμεν: AASubj 1p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
1. Has there ever been a worse use of the hortatory subjunctive than, “Come, let us kill him”?
2. To this point, the motive for beating, killing and stoning the servants is not given. I am not sure how to read this motive for killing the son. Keeping his “inheritance” may refer to keeping the fruits of their labors. If it refers to somehow obtaining ownership of the land itself, then there are some inheritance laws at work that I do not understand. (This is also an area where I am suspicious of commentators whose “historical” claims seem like retrofitted rationales to answer unanswerable questions.)
3. If one is hearing this parable as a judgment against imperial regimes who have overstepped their God-given purpose, then this is an act of hubris whereby those regimes are no longer rendering God’s judgment but are trying to overcome God’s own purposes. If one hears it as Matthew’s way of describing Jesus’ forthcoming death, then it presumes that Jesus’ executioners knew and accepted that he was God’s son sent to them.

39 καὶ λαβόντες αὐτὸν ἐξέβαλον ἔξω τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος καὶ ἀπέκτειναν. 
And having taken him they threw out of the vineyard and killed.
λαβόντες: AAPart npm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take 
ἐξέβαλον: AAI 3p, ἐκβάλλω, 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out
ἀπέκτειναν: AAI 3p, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever
1. Here is that “take/receive” verb (λαμβάνω) again. See vv. 34 and 35.
2. The rough translation is quite awkward because I am not adding ‘him’ to each action. The 2nd and 3rd use of ‘him’ are supplied in smoother translations.

40 ὅταν οὖν ἔλθῃ  κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος, τί ποιήσει τοῖς γεωργοῖς ἐκείνοις; 
Therefore when the lord of the vineyard might come, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”
ἔλθῃ: AASubj 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
ποιήσει: FAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make 
1. Now, the “householder” (οἰκοδεσπότης: literally “house despot”) is become the “the lord of the vineyard” ( κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος). For many, that reference seems to solidify the interpretation of this figure as the God-figure.
2. Also adding to the interpretation of this figure as the God-figure is the invulnerability that surrounds him. He does not “return” with an army, but he also does not return with any concern about being killed, stoned, beaten, or sent away empty. Those responses are not given as possibilities for the story. The only question is how the Lord of the vineyard will deal with the tenant farmers.

41 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Κακοὺς κακῶς ἀπολέσει αὐτούς, καὶ τὸν ἀμπελῶνα ἐκδώσεται ἄλλοις γεωργοῖς, οἵτινες ἀποδώσουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς καρποὺς ἐν τοῖς 
καιροῖς αὐτῶν. 
They say to him, “Evil ones he will destroy them evilly, and will lease the vineyard to other tenant farmers, who will give to him the fruit their seasons.”
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀπολέσει: FAI 3s, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy
ἐκδώσεται: FMI 3s,
ἀποδώσουσιν: FAI 3p, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's own, to sell
1. According to the flow of this chapter and v.23 above, the “they” are the chief priests and elders of the people.
2. I am seeing κακός translated as ‘miserable,’ ‘wretched,’ or ‘evil’ – any of which is fine, but I think it is important to honor Matthew’s repetition and keep the term consistent, first as an adjective Κακοὺς then as an adverb κακῶς. I like how the NIV has, “he will bring those wretches to a wretched end.”
3. I’m guessing that we are seeing Matthew’s description of the expectations of 1st century Jewish leadership here: God had given Israel over to the stewardship of the Roman Empire. They have, in turn, refused God’s servants. Therefore, God will return and punish the Roman Empire in the same way that they have violently treated God’s servants. Then God will give the land to better stewards. One might presume that the chief priests and elders imagine themselves as those better stewards, given how emphatically they embrace this answer.  
4. Is it just me, or does this expectation seem to be the ideology, if not the theology, behind every revolutionary movement in history? They had their chance; they blew it; God/Fate/Karma/Justice will bring them down (perhaps with our help) and give that power to us, who will be more pleasing to God/Fate/Karma/Justice.
5. Of course, if one is hearing this parable as a parable about how the chief priests and elders have been evil tenants, then they are announcing their own verdict in the strongest of terms.  

42 λέγει αὐτοῖς  Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς, Λίθον ὃν 
ἀπεδοκίμασαν οἱ οἰκοδομοῦντες οὗτος ἐγενήθη εἰς κεφαλὴν γωνίας: 
παρὰ κυρίου ἐγένετο αὕτη, καὶ ἔστιν θαυμαστὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν;
Jesus says to them, “Have you never discerned in the scriptures, ‘The stone which those who are builders rejected has become into a head of a corner; by a lord it has become this, and is wonderful in our eyes’? 
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀνέγνωτε: AAI 2p, ἀναγινώσκω, 1) to distinguish between, to recognize, to know accurately,  to acknowledge  2) to read 
ἀπεδοκίμασαν: AAI 3p, ἀποδοκιμάζω  1. to disapprove, to reject on scrutiny or trial.
οἰκοδομοῦντες: PAPart npm, οἰκοδομέω  1. to build a house; to build;
ἐγενήθη: API 3s, γίνομαι  1) to begin to be
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι  1) to begin to be
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. The pronoun “it” in the last sentence is feminine, which means the antecedent is the phrase κεφαλὴν γωνίας, a head of a corner.
2. This is a direct quote from the LXX version of Psalm 117:22-23: λίθον ὃν ἀπεδοκίμασαν οἱ οἰκοδομοῦντες οὗτος ἐγενήθη εἰς κεφαλὴν γωνίας παρὰ κυρίου ἐγένετο αὕτη καὶ ἔστιν θαυμαστὴ ἐνὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, which is rendered in English Bibles as Psalm 118:22-23 “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” 
3. This well-known psalm changes everything! The rejection of the son, even the death of the son, is not the final violation that requires death-as-punishment in return. The option that those who answer Jesus’ question in v.41 leave out is the option that they cite often in their psalter – God can work differently than the Empire. The chief priests and elders, whose expectations of God’s justice ought to be shaped by the Scriptures, instead demonstrate that they have internalized imperial violence as their theology.
4. For Matthew’s community, this psalm claims that God’s way of dealing with the Empire is by resurrection, not vengeance. This verse is Matthew’s argument that the early church is indeed faithful to the Hebrew Bible, by believing in God’s ability to restore the rejected stone.

43 διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἀρθήσεται ἀφ' ὑμῶν  βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ δοθήσεται ἔθνει ποιοῦντι τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτῆς. 
Because of this I say to you that the reign of God will be lifted from you and given to a people who are producing its fruit.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀρθήσεται : FPI 3s, αἴρω, 1) to raise up, elevate, lift up 
δοθήσεται: FPI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone
ποιοῦντι: PAPart dsn, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
1. The antecedent for “its” fruit is “ βασιλεία.” There is a people bringing forth the fruit of the reign of God and it is not the Jewish leaders to whom Jesus is speaking. That is a shocking statement.
2. Matthew uses the phrase ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (the reign/kingdom of God) 5 times, whereas it is used 67 times in the NT. More often, 31 times, Matthew uses “the reign of the heavens” or “the reign of heaven.” None of those phrases are found in the OT. There is one mention of “the reign of God” in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon. 

44 [Καὶ  πεσὼν ἐπὶ τὸν λίθον τοῦτον συνθλασθήσεται: ἐφ' ὃν δ' ἂν πέσῃ 
λικμήσει αὐτόν.] 
[And the one who has fallen on this stone will be shattered; on whom it falls will crush him.]
πεσὼν: AAPart nsm, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall (either from or upon)  1a1) to be thrust down  1b) metaph. to fall under judgment, came under condemnation
συνθλασθήσεται: FPI 3s,
πέσῃ: AASubj 3s, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall (either from or upon)
λικμήσει: FAI 3s, λικμάω, 1) to winnow, cleanse away the chaff from the grain by winnowing  2) to scatter  3) to crush to pieces, grind to powder 
1. This is a curious statement in a curious place that is not found in all of the early manuscripts and which seems to me to be an obvious gloss to synchronize Matthew’s account with Luke’s account. It doesn’t seem to fit within the metaphor of the cornerstone at all.

45 Καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι τὰς παραβολὰς αὐτοῦ 
ἔγνωσαν ὅτι περὶ αὐτῶν λέγει: 
And the chief priests and the Pharisees having listened to his parable knew that he is speaking about them.
ἀκούσαντες: AAPart npm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear
ἔγνωσαν: AAI 3p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel  1a) to become known
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. On this key verse, see my comment below. 

46 καὶ ζητοῦντες αὐτὸν κρατῆσαι ἐφοβήθησαν τοὺς ὄχλους, ἐπεὶ εἰς 
προφήτην αὐτὸν εἶχον.
And seeking to arrest him they were fearful of the crowd, since they were regarding him as a prophet.
ζητοῦντες: PAPart npm, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find  1a) to seek a thing 
κρατῆσαι: AAInf, κρατέω, 1) to have power, be powerful  1a) to be chief, be master of, to rule  … 2c) to take hold of, take, seize  
ἐφοβήθησαν: API 3p,
εἶχον: IAI 3p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
1. This is a great statement because it circles back to the chief priests and elders own statement in v.26, when they refuse to answer Jesus’ question about John’s authority because they, self-admittedly – fear the crowd. 

I've been trying to imagine how there are two different perspectives at work on how to hear this parable. 
On the one hand, I want to suggest that the chief priests and Pharisees have heard the parable (until v. 45) as describing the Roman Empire, and perhaps the tradition of imperial regimes to which they have been subjected over the centuries, which have systematically rejected God's messengers and has failed to honor God. But their response to Jesus' question displays that they have imbibed in thinking like the Empire itself. They say God's response should be vengeance, to which Jesus shows that the Scriptures posit resurrection instead. 

On the other hand, v. 45 shows that for Jesus - per Matthew - the parable is not about the empire as much as about the chief priests and Pharisees themselves. This may be Matthew's way of interpreting the catastrophe of the failed rebellion of 66-70 CE, as well as the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. It may reflect Jesus' resilience in the face of his own impending rejection and death. 

What is most important is that the biblical alternative to revenge is resurrection. The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone. Resurrection is not something that was unknown and unthought until Jesus came back from the grave - this resurrection motif that has been part of the Old Testament tradition for years. (Another way that resurrection has been part of the Old Testament tradition will show up in the next chapter, Matthew 22:23-33.) I am convinced that unless we see how Jesus reads the Old Testament through the lens of resurrection and not revenge, we don't understand the full extent of Jesus' consonance with the Old Testament. Indeed, he is not overturning it, but fulfilling it, especially based on his resurrection reading of the law, the psalms, and the prophets. 

Last word: There is a danger in v. 45. Too many Christian voices over the years have interpreted this parable as God's judgment against "the Jews," resulting in an attitude of Christian triumphalism. Much of that attitude is grounded in the presumption that God is a vengeful or punishing God, rather than through the lens of resurrection. To them, one is tempted to ask, "Have you not read the Scriptures, how the stone that is rejected has returned to become the chief cornerstone?" Vengeance is never God's last word. Ask any stone.


  1. In Jesus' telling, the chief priests and the elders/Pharisees would have seen that God/the landowner was on their side, casting out anyone who threatened their self righteousness or authority. In Matthew's retelling of the story... well, this is where I get lost. The early church would have seen the tenant farmers/wretches as the Roman Empire. God will surely kick them out. But if the flow follows Jesus' original telling, the empire would have become the cornerstone? (Oh, wait! It did, a few centuries later!)

    I'm lost.

    1. The tenants did not become the cornerstone; the son did. So the empire would not become the cornerstone; the Son would.

  2. Dwight: I agree with the Anonymous commenter above. Still, I see your point and find the hard part of this parable to be how it is that Jesus is speaking it "against them", i.e. the chief priests, etc. I also think it is complicated because, as Jesus speaks, he has not been killed. So, to posit him as the son who is put to death in the parable has to be a post-crucifixion/resurrection claim by the early church, retrofitted into a parable in a pre-crucifixion/resurrection moment.

    I wonder what might have happened if the leaders had said "God will restore the son as Psalm 117/118 says." If the had given this answer and, indeed, if they had exercised their offices with the expectations that God would do so, I think Jesus would have said, "Yes!" and they would have been on the same side. But, by answering with violence, they have aligned themselves with the manner of Rome and have shown their kinship with the tenants, not the way of God.

    Something like that, perhaps?

  3. I'm reading this three years later and I thank you for your hard work. I'm reading this at a time when yesterday the Spanish police tried to stop the Catalans from voting to secede by committing acts of violence. The Empire does not know how to behave differently. And then the awful tragedy of Las Vegas today. Our leaders offer "thoughts and prayer" and likely won't do a thing to prevent this from happening again. They too have "internalized imperial violence as a theology." The "thoughts and prayers" are pacifiers to maintain the imperial status quo dressed up as theological anguish. Perhaps i'm being far too judgmental and the feelings are all raw again, but I am so fed up with "prayers" that do not seek to change anything. You began with Isaiah 5 and the spoiled fruit. I intend to read it alongside the parable for this Sunday to further the idea that Jesus is holding up leaders and authorities of different eras and persuasions who have not sought to protect the innocent.

    1. Hi David,
      I actually updated this post a lot this year, so it's a little fresher than the bread in my freezer at home.
      Yes, I'm reading the Song of the Vineyard this Sunday, alongside of this parable, also. In fact, I have woven them together to be ready by two voices back and forth. If you're interested in seeing that, send me you email (or message me on Facebook your email address) and I'll send it to you.
      Thanks for your thoughts. What a difficult week.

  4. D.Mark, your "what if" comment about the Pharisees from 10/5/14 makes me think of the alternative (correct?) reading of Zaccheus, in which he defends his correct practices of giving back fourfold, etc. -- practices he already engages! Jesus overrules he inherent prejudices of the crowd against tax collectors, saying "salvation has come here today!" Yes, the possibility of answering correctly is always there for Jesus, and He would indeed celebrate it with a "Yes!"

    1. Terry, thanks for your comments, both with regard to this text and with regard to Zacchaeus. I would agree that the possibility of answering correctly is always there with Jesus. The Syro-Phoenician woman is a great example, because she basically offers a better perspective than Jesus does, to which he agrees. The Roman Centurion speaks of authority in a way that Jesus approves. The outsiders seem to get it right more often than the insiders and the experts.

  5. Another parallel (sort of) - the occupation of federal lands by protesters who see their actions as setting off a wider protest by ranchers and others to resist the feds - and the rationale for bearing arms to be able to defend against the government's forces. Similar to occupy Wall Street with violence against the police? If that sounds like the reaction of the tenants, the religious leadership sounds like those enforcing the dominance of the 'rightful owners?'

  6. I find your translations and commentary extremely helpful in my sermon prep each week, so thanks for persisting in it.
    But I was disappointed to find the link to the "alternating reading of Isaiah 5:1-7 (the Song of the Vineyard) and Matthew 21:33-46 (the Parable of the Vineyard) in two voices" did not work. The message is that it "no longer exists." Can we look forward to accessing this in another way?

    1. Hi Susan, I have refreshed the link to where it ought to work now. And Ken Wells has offered his rendering, for which I am grateful.

  7. Didn't find yours I'm submitting my owns
    Crop of Justice Isaiah 5:1-7Matthew 21:33-46

    Voice One
    I’ll sing a ballad to the one I love, a love ballad about his vineyard:
    The one I love had a vineyard, a fine, well-placed vineyard.
    He hoed the soil and pulled the weeds, and planted the very best vines.
    He built a lookout, built a wine press, a vineyard to be proud of.
    He looked for a vintage yield of grapes, but for all his pains he got junk grapes.

    Voice Two
    “Here’s another story. Listen closely.
    When it was time to harvest the grapes, he sent his servants back to collect his profits.
    35-37 “The farmhands grabbed the first servant and beat him up. The next one they murdered. They threw stones at the third but he got away. The owner tried again, sending more servants. They got the same treatment. The owner was at the end of his rope. He decided to send his son. ‘Surely,’ he thought, ‘they will respect my son.’

    Voice One
    3-4 “Now listen to what I’m telling you, you who live in Jerusalem and Judah.
    What do you think is going on between me and my vineyard?
    Can you think of anything I could have done to my vineyard that I didn’t do?
    When I expected good grapes, why did I get bitter grapes?

    Voice Two
    38-39 “But when the farmhands saw the son arrive, they rubbed their hands in greed. ‘This is the heir! Let’s kill him and have it all for ourselves.’ They grabbed him, threw him out, and killed him.
    40 “Now, when the owner of the vineyard arrives home from his trip, what do you think he will do to the farmhands?”

    Voice One
    5-6 “Well now, let me tell you what I’ll do to my vineyard:
    I’ll tear down its fence and let it go to ruin. I’ll knock down the gate and let it be trampled.
    I’ll turn it into a patch of weeds, untended, uncared for— thistles and thorns will take over.
    I’ll give orders to the clouds: ‘Don’t rain on that vineyard, ever!’”

    Voice Two
    41 “He’ll kill them—a rotten bunch, and good riddance,” they answered. “Then he’ll assign the vineyard to farmhands who will hand over the profits when it’s time.”

    Voice One
    7 Do you get it? The vineyard of God-of-the-Angel-Armies is the country of Israel.
    All the men and women of Judah are the garden he was so proud of.

    Voice Two
    42-44 Jesus said, “Right—and you can read it for yourselves in your Bibles:
    The stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone. This is God’s work; we rub our eyes, we can hardly believe it! “This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taVoice Two back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life. Whoever stumbles on this Stone gets shattered; whoever the Stone falls on gets smashed.”
    45-46 When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them. They wanted to arrest Jesus and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.

    Both God looked for a crop of justice and saw them murdering each other.


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