Politics of Matthew 21:33-46 (The Parable of the Oppressed Tenants)

The Politics of Scripture

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.

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 david.true@wilson.edu.

8 thoughts on “Politics of Matthew 21:33-46 (The Parable of the Oppressed Tenants)

  1. I have no idea where you come up with your interpretations.

    In Matt 21:33-41 there is no indication of any injustice toward the tenants at all. They have simply refused to pay the rent justly due. The owner is the Father, the son is the Son, and the tenants are the Children of Abraham. The tenants failed to render to God what was God’s in response to Moses and the Prophets. They even refused, and in fact killed, the Son. Now they will be rejected by God and the vineyard, salvation, will go to the gentiles who believe. And the economic sub-text is that if you don’t comply with your contracts, you will lose out.

    Matt 21:12-17 shows Jesus against perhaps the profaning of sacred space or dishonest brokers (robbers) or both, but not against honest commerce.

    And Matt 20:1-16 teaches just the opposite of your point. Here the first workers complained of the injustice of paying those who work harder the same as those who work the least. There is, of course, no indication that the last workers would not have taken the opportunity to join those first workers because of the expectation of a greater reward. But the landowner has the freedom to do as he will with his own money, and he chose to voluntarily give it to the last to be employed – not because they deserved it but because the landowner desired it. And putting a fine point on it, the landowner says that the first workers had gotten what they were owed and could demand no more.

    You might also consider the underlying economic assumptions of the parable of the loaned money, Matt 25:14-30 which praises profits from wise investments or the parable of the lost son in Luke 15:11-32 in which foolish economic choices are punished and the lost son is only rescued after he resolves to return to the right path and go back to work.

    As for your statement that “the poor have hurt no one” (I am assuming you are talking as a class and on average, not that no poor person has ever hurt anyone. I respond in the same way without implying that every poor person has hurt himself or others.), they have hurt themselves and their families first and most, but they have also hurt all of society. When a person drops out of school, joins a gang, commits a crime, takes drugs, gives up trying to support himself, has a child before marriage, etc. that person increases his or her own likelihood of being poor (which would otherwise be nearly zero), ending up in jail or on welfare, and having children who are also poor. But that person, by his or her choices, has also increased society’s costs in law enforcement, welfare, etc. without contributing anything to the overall wealth or well being of society.

    That does not mean that Christians, as individuals, are exempted from their duty to help the poor, but for it to be charity it must be voluntary and not coerced by government “redistribution.” And it should concentrate on those programs that show the most promise of ending people’s dependence, and on people who are willing to try.

  2. Thank you for your response to my post, I would like to offer three points in response to what you raised that I feel are important not only to conversation about this text but also to present political circumstances.

    1.) It is difficult for me to read this parable as Jesus condemning Israel and suggesting God’s favor has shifted toward Christianized gentiles. Jesus himself was indisputably Jewish and nowhere claims to be initiating a tradition outside of Judaism. Additionally, the author of the Gospel of Matthew more than any other New Testament author seeks to emphasize Jesus’ identity as the Jewish messiah and part of the lineage of Israel. Accordingly, I find any reading that sets Jesus, either as a historical figure or character in Matthew, against Judaism to be historically and exegetically impossible.

    2.) In response to the idea that this parable does not indicate oppression of the tenants, you are correct that it is not named explicitly. However, in reading the Hebrew Bible, vineyards are mentioned repeatedly in reference to the economic abuse of the poor (see as an example Nehemiah 5 and Isaiah 5). Additionally, many of Jesus audience, poor rural Jews under imperial oppression by Rome, would likely see themselves in the tenants position and thus import their own experience of being oppressed and subjugated into the story. For these two reasons, I do not feel I am stretching in suggesting that the story imagines the tenants as oppressed.

    3.) Finally, although I am not a social scientist by training, I also disagree fundamentally with your analysis of the causes and effects of poverty. The vast majority of the poor do not choose to be poor nor are they responsible for their own poverty, rather inequitable systems create the conditions for poverty on the scale which we see it today. I believe that the money changers in the temple were engaging in acceptable commerce of their time, that story ought to make us question, what forms of commerce that we find acceptable today would Jesus attack if he were here today?

    Again, I appreciate your response and the opportunity to clarify my position.

    1. Sorry John, you have so completely missed the point of this parable, I don’t know where to start.

      Did you not take a course in Matthew in seminary? Pick up Keener, France, or Bruner and fill in the holes where your seminary failed you.

      This does not necessarily make your political criticism wrong. This parable simply has nothing to do with the point you’re trying to make.

      1. I have no issue with disagreeing in exegetical work, in fact I think it can be quite fruitful, but I do want to defend Union Theological Seminary which has far from failed me.

        My reading of this parable is consistant with a number of other authors, Phillip Culbertson and John Donahue as examples. This post grows out of my work in an exegetical practicum and reflects the relative consensus reading of the faculty and students who participated in that group.

        Unfortunately, I feel that a misguided history of christian
        interpretation has blinded most readers to other possible meanings of this parable. I will always be grateful to my colleagues at Union for pushing me into some genuine engagement with the text on its own terms.

        Again, thank you for reading and it is fine if you disagree with my interpretation, but I just want to correct the implication that our divergent readings are rooted in Union Seminary providing me an inadequate foundation in Bible and Exegesis.

  3. As to point one, I wrote too quickly, and I agree with you as to the innocence of Jews generally for the blood of Jesus. Not all Jews were spoken of here, but only “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (v.45). See also the parallel passages in Mark 12: 1-12 and Luke 20:9-19 where my interpretation (which is not original to me but is the generally accepted one) is even more obvious. While the parable is about the Kingdom of God, not economics, the parable would not have made sense to the people if had not reflected Jesus’, and the people’s, underlying assumptions about “economic justice.” In Mark and Luke the eviction of the non-paying tenants is put in Jesus’ mouth, not the people’s, thus making it clear that Jesus did not think that eviction was an unjust result. In Luke, Jesus even corrects the people when they say “may this never be” with regard to the eviction. (I wonder whether the people’s reaction was to the economic question or, I think more likely, the theological implication that simply being Jewish did not guaranty entry into the Kingdom. See Matt 3:7-10) Luke also makes clear that the reference to the stone the builders rejected from Psalm 118 was meant as a warning that the non-paying tenants would be replaced. Matthew makes clear that the new tenants would give the landlord “his share” at harvest time. Your assumption that the old tenants should have received the benefit of the landlord’s land, vineyard, wall, winepress and watchtower for free is simply Marxist and equates all return on capital as “exploitation” as Marx wrote.

    Isaiah 5 is actually similar to the Gospel passages we are talking about. God planted the vineyard but the tenants did not bring forth good fruit. But in this case, the tenants will go into exile and the land be devastated. Nothing about economic “oppression” here. Nehemiah 5 is more to your point, but implies that those being condemned were exacting usurious interest on the loans extended to returning Jews. And just because one vineyard involved economic injustice does not mean that whenever you hear of a vineyard there must be economic injustice.

    The story of Naboth’s Vineyard, 1 Kings 21, is one upholding the rights of private property against the depredations of the King. I also note that two of the Ten Commandments, against theft and against coveting one’s neighbor’s possessions, make no sense except in the context of private property. And the Commandment against coveting specifically addresses, it seems to me, class warfare as presently being conducted.

    As to point two, you are simply reading your own Marxist views into the text. One needs to read Scripture with an open mind, looking for what is really being said even, or especially, if it disagrees with your own underlying assumptions. Your reading of the parable, by the way, would justify armed rebellion and murder, which I assume you do not intend.

    As to point three, I did not say people choose to be poor. I said they choose to join gangs, drop out of school, etc. which results in poverty. You will never cure poverty unless the poor change their ways and their culture. Many escape poverty by hard work and responsible behaviors. We can encourage that by improving and extending opportunities to create wealth and escape poverty. But merely redistributing money fosters dependency and a plantation mentality which reduces incentives to do what needs to be done to become middle class. A plantation mentality makes it easier for community organizers, including the Community Organizer-in-Chief, to keep the poor in line as reliable supporters and voters. Without a plantation mentality there might be more like Herman Cain, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell. (You should read Sowell’s “Basic Economics” as soon as you can.)

    As for what systems create poverty, I would point to the undeniable fact that prosperity follows economic freedom, and that socialist systems do not create prosperous societies. The so-called “poor” of this country are middle class, if not wealthy, by the standards of much of the world without our economic freedom.

  4. I really appreciate how you weave together context: lives of the poor + lives of biblical characters. From your post, I was able to pull together both realities, as if both were having a conversation with each other. Thanks for being rooted in the biblical and lived reality and for pulling those together in the parable. Really helpful for me.

  5. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your content seem to be running off the screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know. The design and style look great though! Hope you get the issue resolved soon. Kudos

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