Accusations have been flying from the right that President Obama’s plans to increase the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest of Americans amounts to nothing short of class warfare. I imagine their paranoia may extend to imagining scenes like the one depicted in this parable of Jesus, the wealthy and their descendants coming under assault by the lower classes of society. While even the most hardened conservative pundits would likely recognize that Obama’s plan falls short of advocating the sort of violent revolution undertaken by Matthew’s tenants, the fear behind their reactionary ire is reflected eerily in the clamoring of the Jerusalem leaders with whom Jesus speaks.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is no friend of the economic status quo. Fresh off of overturning the tables of the temple tellers (21:12-17) and advocating that wages be paid to workers without regard to their relative productivity (20:1-16), he tells a story of tenants in a vineyard who kill all those who come to collect their rent, even their landlord’s son. What is curious is however that the unexpected twist never seems to come, instead Jesus asks what ought to happen to these tenants, and the reply comes, “he will put those wretches to a miserable death” (21:41).
Just as audiences at Republican primary debates have cheered Rick Perry’s unprecedented record of executions as governor, and goaded Ron Paul to declare that uninsured coma patients ought to be left to die, the elite leaders who hear Jesus’ parable react in a frenzy of violent excitement, “put those wretches to a wretched death” (21:41). Their enthusiasm is self-indictment, and Jesus is quick to chastise their desire to repress the poor tenants and unleash the justice of an oppressive economic system upon them.
Jesus says, “Have you never read in the scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?” (20:42). Have you not heard that the poor own the kingdom of God? Do you not remember that the meek are blessed? Do you not remember that Christ is incarnate in the least of those among us? It is as hard for us to hear the cries of the poor today as it was for the Jesus’ fellow Jewish teachers and leaders to hear the voices of the tenants. The tenants may not have been right to kill, but the point of the parable is to emphasize that the enthusiasm with which the wealthy have undertaken violently abusing the poor is unacceptable.
The poor of this country have hurt no one and are yet being demonized as economic dead weight; they have upheld their agreements but have been defrauded by banks and lenders. Still, our political and economic leaders clamor for their deaths, with varying degrees of explicitness, detachment and subtlety.
May we hear Jesus calling us back to the stories we claim, may we know that the rejected are the chosen in God’s eyes, and may we learn to interrupt the violent frenzy of our rhetoric and step down from our position where we are poised to incriminate those without recourse and scapegoat those whom we can easily believe are beneath us.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.
This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.