When someone asks: “What would Jesus do, remind them that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option. — Ann Onymous
Scholars note that this parable Jesus tells, this parable about the tenant farmers who refuse to yield the landowner his proper tribute, must be understood by remembering the place in which it was told. Had Jesus told it a year before, standing next to a vineyard in Galilee, it might have been a condemnation of absentee landownership and seems to have been used as such in New Testament times in other sources.
But, as it is told in the temple where the presence of God is admitted by everyone, it has a different meaning. Note how I worded that last sentence. Yes, everyone would have affirmed that God was indeed in the temple and therefore very much present. God is therefore not the problem.
No, told here, the parable is a condemnation of the specific tenant farmers. Jesus says so outright. (Matt 21:43) But the reuse and retooling of the parable is instructive to understanding it.
Peasant life is not pleasant. They got to do the work, supply the seed, do the harvesting, and then suddenly they had to deliver a fairly hefty share thereof to the owner. If the owner was to be one in a foreign place then their tribute to the owner was probably paid in money and not crop, which meant they were also at the mercy of the market and the rather complicated ways that taxes were levied when produce was transported and sold.
The tenant farmer who works my land shows up on April 1st — yes, April 1st — with check for land rent. After that, I am no longer involved with what happens in the field. He plants and harvests. He takes the risks inherent in farming, but at the end of the year, it is all his to take to the elevator and sell. Present or absent, I figure into his decisions only at the margins.
The tenants in Jesus’ parable, on the other hand, have to be very conscious of the owner at every step of the process. They depend on the owner to let them the land and its vines again next year, so every decision has consequences for their future on the land. A bad harvest is not only a present disaster but might have even worse repercussions in the year to come when not only is there bad harvest but no land to grow the next harvest on. My farmer merely has to pay me the going land rent rate and see to it that he is not rude or offensive to me and I will very likely rent him the field again next year.
If one was to be an absentee landlord, this parable would indeed be a warning. They do not treat your servants badly when they can see your house and know you are close by to enforce your will and protect your servants. They would also know whether you are alive or dead. If your son shows up they will not think that he is now the owner and kill him in their frustration, thinking that they will be able to perpetuate their use of the land by those actions.
O.K., so that is crazy thinking but maybe it is not all that crazy as labor unrest and peasant revolts through the centuries are plenty. But, if this parable was once a warning against absentee landownership it is not that here. Here the tenants, the temple authorities, the priest and elders (21:23) are working literally under nose of the owner. As priests not only do they work around the owner, no, they approach the owner in their rituals to ask his favor and they do so daily.
The interchange between Jesus and the authorities suggests a few troubling scenarios:
1) Maybe they did not realize that Jesus was the Son and that John had been a prophet. The crowds seem to believe but the authorities were not accustomed to follow the crowd, they were accustomed to telling the crowd what to believe.
2) Maybe they realized it but were denying it actively as 21:25-26 and 21:46 hint at. In Matthew, among the synoptic Gospels, all faith authorities are in enmity to Jesus and are actively trying to destroy him. (12:4, 27:42-43 – grammar suggests they suspect that Jesus might be who he says he is)
If one rejects the authority of the son, then one rejects the authority of the household from which he comes and therefore one rebells against the authority of the landowner, the father, the God whose presence these priests were meant to serve.
3) Maybe they were functional atheists. That is to say, maybe they did read the Pentateuch and gathered for lectionary Torah study on the third day of the week at the third hour but their actions, lives, and decisions somehow did not countenance the content of that Torah. Maybe that is why Jesus charges them, along with the Pharisees as Hypocrites. As a result they act like the ones that knowingly reject Jesus and deserve the same treatment as outlined in option 2) above.
I know what you are thinking: “How could they? They were priests! They did the ritual thing every day. How can they be atheists?” When holy things are handled every day they either become so part of the priest who handles them as to let that one live holy or they become entirely external but ordinary and meaningless to the priest. I believe Urban Holmes observed this about Christian Clergy. Unfortunately, the former tend to be mystics and strange people whom we tend to avoid while the latter pour themselves into worldly pursuit of organizational success and they tend to achieve it. They become the “successful” pastors because they administer, not because they pray. (Actually, St. John of the Cross observed that, Gerald May does as well) If you think about it, it is a matter of succumbing to the second Temptation of Jesus (Matt 4:5-6) as an attempt to put God into the position to reveal irrefutably to the burned-out priest that, Yes, the Holy of Holies is not empty and neither is the Sacrament just bread and vine. Clergy burnout is real today and probably had its own form in last Temple as well.
If you think about it, possibility 3) pretty much leads to a desperate version of 2) when the physical reality you hope to perpetuate is challenged. You turn over a few tables, throw some coins, and drive off a few sheep and the senior priest is on his way over really, really quickly, and even if he understands or even sympathizes with your reasoning, he will and cannot get himself to condone your actions much less join you in them. The mystic might though, which is why they tend not to get elected to Synod councils or Sanhedrin alike.
Possibility 3) also would cause the blindness that is possibility 1). Think about it this way: “Leaving the light on keeps the monsters away at night.” “How do you know that?” “Well, I have left my light on for years now and I am fine.” “What would happen if you turned them off?” “I couldn't do that. It would be suicide. I have never slept without the lights on. That is why I am safe from the monsters.” (Kreeft) What if John the Baptist comes and tells you to turn off the lights, so to speak? You would have to conclude that he is either nuts or that he does not have your best interest at heart and therefore is no prophet. If the job and the book is all that there is anything else is automatically not recognized and therefore not acceptable, even the healing of the blind and the lame, even the repentance and return of the sinners. (21:14-15, 32)
So, in a certain way, all these are connected and related in an unfortunate way. What is a peasant to do? As I said before: any good peasant pays constant mind to the landowner to whom he owes the field or vineyard that sustains him. What does that landowner want? A well kept vineyard that only uses organic fertilizer, natural insect management techniques, non GMO vines, fish and amphibian friendly herbicides, a vineyard that has a low carbon footprint and is open to the public as an educational center to sustainable agriculture with daily tours, an onsite bistro, and a lot of curb appeal? Well . . . Yes . . . And? . . . And? . . .Well . . . How about a good harvest of grapes?
God has a purpose for human life and an expected outcome to Faith. Yet, what is that purpose: “The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” Add your own but do it cautiously.
So, I know, I have walked off the well beaten and traditional path of Matthew 21 just a bit. I do so consciously. I am not sure that the conscious, intentional rejection that Matthew seems to imply is the biggest problem modern church attendees face. There is a creeping loss of a sense of purpose that is much more subtle and easier to fall into. Once lost, what will faith look like and how hard will we fight to make it stay like we have shaped it? The Temptations of Jesus could be a tool to evaluate our life and actions. If we find ourselves mirrored in the tempter’s suggestions there will not be any fruit from the vineyard for God or us. What fruit is your faith bearing and is that the fruit that our God hoped for. What will you deliver?