Barry Newman's Blog

January 15, 2013

The Parable of the Tenants (part IX)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable of the Tenants — barrynewman @ 9:53 pm

Understanding the parable

By now, if it was not so before, the meaning of the parable and what followed should be reasonably clear.  Jeremias describes the parable as “pure allegory”.  Well, it certainly is highly allegorical. The advice that one should normally look for only one or two main points being made in a parable does not apply here.

The main elements of the parable are:  the vineyard owner, his servants, the son of the owner, the tenants and of course the vineyard itself and its fruit.  The vineyard is Israel. God is the owner.  The fruit of the vineyard that God expects could be justice, righteousness, faithfulness and love, without insisting on being precise. His servants are those whom God has sent to Israel. His son is Jesus. The tenants are those who are Israel’s religious leaders responsible for the care of Israel.  There is also significance to be attached to the time line.  God chose Israel in the past; the prophets came to Israel throughout her history; the Son has finally come to Israel; the son will be killed; the current leadership will be removed; there will be a new leadership. There is also significance attached to what happens. God’s choice of Israel involved his considerable care for her; God expected certain qualities from his people; the religious leaders have acted with considerable malice towards God and his prophets; God has been longsuffering and patient; the prophets were, and the Son will be, shamefully treated; the religious leaders act as though they could act with impunity; God will finally bring judgement to bear upon those leaders; although not part of the parable, in the words of Jesus that follows it is clear that the Son will be vindicated and exalted and will himself be central in the judgment of God.  Finally, if in the parable the landlord is to be understood as a foreigner, is Jesus conveying the notion that God is a foreigner to those who were supposed to be caring for his people?  They are antagonistic towards him and reject his ownership. An intriguing thought!

For all of the theological and historical material embodied in the parable there is some diffuseness to it however and one should recognise what it does not portray.  It would be a mistake to see significance in each item involved in the setting up of the vineyard – for example, elements of the complex history of Israel, its beginnings with Abraham, the rise of the kings, the prefigured Messiah, David, the division of Israel into the Southern and Northern kingdoms, the annihilation of the northern kingdom, the exile of the Southern kingdom, the occupation of Israel by succeeding nations – none of these features are being portrayed in the parable.  It would also be a mistake to be too precise about the identity of the tenants and when they have been operating. Surely they at least represent any with influence who are opposed to Jesus, however, given an historical perspective, they also represent those in the past with influence who did not take care of but mislead God’s people and mistreated his servants.  History is compressed in this parable. It also seems we should be careful in seeing the killing of the son outside of the vineyard as illustrative of Jesus being killed outside of the city of Jerusalem. Mark’s Gospel, which may give an account of the parable closer to the original version as told by Jesus, than the other Gospels, has the son killed within the vineyard.  Should we see, in the reference by Jesus to Psalm 118, an understanding by him that he is representative of Israel?  There are other questions like that, the answers to which are not easy to determine.

And one must not forget the setting. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his cleansing and occupation of the temple explicitly displayed a belief in his own importance and authority. The reaction of the chief priests and scribes to what occurred there was profound. The cursing of the fig tree by Jesus bespoke of his judgement upon the failure of at least the religious leadership.  The confrontation between Jesus and members of the Sanhedrin created even greater animosity. The parable of two sons, recorded by Matthew, that elevated the tax collectors and sinners above the religious hierarchy was stark in its condemnation of the latter and would have only increased the tension between Jesus and the religious leadership.

The parable focuses on the extraordinary opposition Jesus was now facing. Yet it has its setting in history.  To repeat its significance but within the historical setting: God in his great kindness had chosen a people especially to be his people.  He nurtured them, cared for them taught them, gave them all things necessary for their good health just as Isaiah spoke of God planting his vineyard: his high quality vines were grown in fertile soil on a ridge receiving both sun and rain, the vineyard was fenced about, entrenched and a tower built; E\expectations were for a wine press, one day, to produce quality wine.

In due course God expected the only appropriate outcome and sent his servants, surely, the prophets, who however could only generally condemn what was on offer.  Some of his servants were shamefully treated and some were killed.  The so-called leaders of God’s people were the ones largely responsible. Finally God sent his Son, his beloved son – that Son, ever so much more important than any or all of the prophets. Surely those claiming to lead his people would recognise his Son for who he is!  But shamelessly they would kill him as well.  They would “cast him out”. God, who though his messengers had been himself shamefully treated, and so dishonoured, had been ever so patient, long suffering and finally so gracious in sending his Son, now, having suspended judgement for so long, would act in anger.  Heavy judgement would descend on those who claimed to be the religious elite.  Others would now care for his people.  It may have been that some time later the “others” would be identified, by some, as the gentiles.  However, at the time or not too long afterwards, the “others” would have been understood to have been the leaders that Jesus had been training – his intimate and faithful disciples.

The judgement court of God had been in session, a verdict had been reached and sentence pronounced.  Later, perhaps when the Gospels were being read, the destruction of Jerusalem would have been seen as both symbolic of and part of that sentence.  And can we not hear echoing in the parable the lament over Jerusalem recorded later in both Matthew and Luke: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you.  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not. Behold your house is forsaken” (Matthew 23: 37, 38; Luke 13: 34, 35a)?

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