The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Illustrating The Matthean VersionLet’s begin with a side-by-side comparison of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in the Synoptics (text cc’d from the NRS)

(NB: You can open/download a PDF version of this post here)

Matthew 21:33-46

Mark 12:1-12

Luke 20:9-19

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time.
When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. At the time of the grape harvest, he sent one of his servants to collect his share of the crop. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard;…
But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. …but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed.
Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out.
Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’
So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him…
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” What then will the owner of the vineyard do?… …What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?
They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” … He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. When they realized that he had told this parable against them… When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them,
They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. … they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

As you read the three versions of the parable, keep the following in mind:

  • Vineyard – the House of Israel
  • The owner is God
  • The slaves are the prophets
  • The tenants are the religious leaders
  • The Son is Jesus

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is widely regarded as an allegory building on Isaiah’s song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7). Here’s the money shot in Isaiah 5:7:

וַיְקַו לְמִשְׁפָּט וְהִנֵּה מִשְׂפָּח לִצְדָקָה וְהִנֵּה צְעָקָה

Note the highlighted red and blue words. This is a textbook example of Hebrew word play that becomes obvious when vocalized. For example, the Hebrew text above reads,

“He waited for mishpat (justice), but beheld mispach(bloodshed),

{And He waited] for tsedaqah (righteousness), but beheld tseaqah (an outcry).

Wordplay such as used in this verse is widely attested in the Bible and constitutes a literary device used to emphasize and highlight significant parts a passage. Evidently, the rejection of God’s covenantal providence by Israel was seen by Isaiah as both an injustice (failure to give God His due) and unrighteousness (failure to respond in kind to God’s fulfilling of His covenantal promise).

This still doesn’t explain the two main differences between Matthew’s version and the versions from Mark and Luke. In Matthew, the son is taken outside the vineyard and killed while in Luke and Mark, the son is killed within the vineyard. Second, Matthew is specific as to the consequences to be suffered by the tenants, i.e., the loss of the kingdom of God, not so Luke and Mark.

Finally, as you reflect on this Parable, note the Matthew and Luke are thought to have been derived two sources — a lost original source (called ‘Q’) and the Gospel of Mark. For an informative introduction to the so-called two-source hypothesis the Wiki entry is a great place to start.

Personally, I am not yet comfortable with the lesson we are to learn from this parable. I have every confidence that the people hearing this lesson would have seized upon its meaning quickly and unambiguously. However, I am stuck thinking that the inconsistencies (1) reflect an early theological/christological dispute, (2) are artifacts of the writing of the Gospels, or (3) some combination of both.

What do you think?

 

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