Matthew 21:33-46, The Accountability of Stewards

[October 5, 2014] Some commentaries and church curriculum materials ought to have the warning attached that they promote anti-Semitic prejudices. Jesus tells a damning parable here that is directed to the chief priests and scribes and members of the Sanhedrin concerning their stewardship of the Lord’s vineyard, and the fairly common interpretation of the conclusion is that God is taking his kingdom away from the Jewish people and giving it to the church. For me it is inconceivable that Jesus could have meant such a thing. Let us straighten this out first before we attempt to find the broader, more contemporary application of this parable.

Jesus says there was “a landowner who planted a vineyard; he fenced it round, dug a winepress in it and built a tower” (20:33). This imagery is taken from Isaiah 5:1-7. That text establishes it as a Biblical motif. We see it taken up again in Jeremiah 12:10 and Psalm 80. We need to understand what—or perhaps who—the vineyard represents or we may be led down the wrong track. Isaiah says, “My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared it of stones, and planted it with red grapes. In the middle he built a tower, he hewed a press there too. He expected it to yield fine grapes: wild grapes were all it yielded.” Jesus is clearly making an allusion to the same vineyard. The issues are different. In Isaiah the problem is that the vineyard only yields wild grapes. In Jesus’ parable the problem is not that the vineyard is not yielding the proper grapes but that the tenants to whom the vineyard has been leased are stealing the produce from the owner and violently keeping it from him.

In Isaiah 5:3 the prophet says, “And now, citizens of Jerusalem and people of Judah, I ask you to judge between me and my vineyard.” Who or what does the vineyard represent? What happens to it is that the owner “takes away its hedge, for it to be grazed on, and knock down its wall, for it to be trampled on. I shall let it go to waste, unpruned, undug, overgrown by brambles and thorn-bushes, and I shall command the clouds to rain no rain on it,” referring to the coming devastation of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians (they stopped at Jerusalem). Isaiah tells us: “Now the vineyard of YHWH Sabaoth is the House of Israel, and the people of Judah the plant he cherished. He expected fair judgment, but found injustice, uprightness, but found cries of distress” (verse 7). These—injustice and cries of distress—are the wild grapes that the Lord found after having delivered them from bondage and from the oppression of their enemies and cared for them with the Instruction (the proto-Torah).

So also in the parable that Jesus tells. The vineyard is the people of Israel, or primarily Judah in Jesus’ historical context. Far from God taking the kingdom away from the Jews—which could only be the interpretation if the owner of the vineyard got rid of his vineyard and bought another one—the vineyard is what is threatened and taken care of. What changes are the tenants in whose hands the vineyard is placed, not the vineyard itself. The vineyard represents the people of Israel, the Jews, whom Jesus cherished so deeply. The tenants are clearly the chief priests and temple scribes and the whole Sadducean establishment that ran the worship of the city and in fact led world Judaism. Jesus was predicting the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the transfer of leadership. After the Temple was destroyed, the leadership of the Jewish people shifted from the Temple establishment (Second Temple Judaism) to Rabbinic Judaism (Rabbinism). After the destruction of Jerusalem, between 70 and 200 CE the scholars of the schools of Jamnia, Lydda, Tiberius, Usha, and Sepphoris of Galilee (the Tannaim) codified the Mishnah, the record of rabbinical discourse which, together with the Gamara, established the oral law. As Wikipedia says,

“In keeping with the commandments of the Torah, Judaism had centered tightly on religious practice and sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews were deprived of a central place of worship and religious activity and were unable to fulfill the Temple-related practices mandated in the Tanakh, and were scattered around the world.”

“Growing out of Pharisaic Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism became the predominant stream within the Jewish diaspora between the 2nd and 6th centuries, with the redaction of the oral law and the Talmud as the authoritative interpretation of Jewish scripture and to encourage the practice of Judaism in the absence of Temple sacrifice and other practices no longer possible.”

“Although there are now profound differences among Jewish denominations of Rabbinic Judaism with respect to the binding force of halakha and the willingness to challenge preceding interpretations, all identify themselves as coming from the tradition of the oral law and the Rabbinic method of analysis.”

Of course, we may question whether the historical Jesus could have made this prediction. In fact he did not. What Matthew has the audience say is this: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him at the proper time.” What Matthew records Jesus saying is this: “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit,” the “you” here being “the chief priests and the [temple] scribes” who in the following verse “realized he was speaking about them.” What Jesus was predicting, along with his historic prediction of the destruction of the Temple, was the end of Second Temple Judaism with its center on the cult of the Temple and the people who led it. He does not say who (or what) took its place, only that someone (or something) would.

What is not in question is the vineyard itself, nor does Jesus condemn the vineyard (for producing wild grapes for instance). Nor, of course, does Jesus in any way insinuate that the vineyard was responsible for the abuse and murder of those whom the vineyard owner sent to collect his produce. He does place a lot of blame on the people of Jerusalem, this is true. He uses the metaphor of the fig tree to speak of them. The vineyard, however, is different. It is the whole people of Israel.

After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the leadership of the Jewish people passed into two hands. Many Jews, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, in a number that cannot be overestimated, became adherents of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus may have had this in mind. Unfortunately in the second to fifth centuries, they became historically overshadowed by the gentile adherents of Jesus, and their identity within the church became as lost as the identity of the Ten Tribes. The rest of the Jews—no doubt the majority—came under the umbrella of Rabbinism. Jesus may have envisioned the leadership of the people passing into the hands of the apostles. If we are to give power to Jesus’ prediction, however, probably we must also give respect to the leadership of Rabbinism.

Once we realize that the vineyard is the people of Israel (primarily the Jews), and that Jesus never imagined that God would abandon them, then the interpretation of the parable becomes straight forward. The owner of the vineyard of course is YHWH and the servants whom he sends are the prophets. His son is without doubt meant to refer to Jesus himself. The wretched tenants are the “you” whom Jesus was addressing, the chief priests and scribes of verse 45, though obviously with an eye also on the elders of the Sanhedrin mentioned in verse 23.

In the parallel passage, Luke 20:19 has “the scribes and the chief priests,” corresponding to “the chief priests and the scribes with the elders” in 20:2. Mark 12:12 simply has the third person pronoun, likewise referring back to “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” of 12:27. The question is why Matthew 21:45 has “the chief priests and Pharisees” in the Bible Societies Greek edition and in the Byzantine Greek. What is curious about this is that the chief priests and the Pharisees were fierce rivals. The New Jerusalem Bible which I am quoting from has “the chief priests and the scribes” in 20:45, which makes the whole story far more consistent. Yet there is not much textual evidence for this choice as far as I can see.

Matthew may have had in mind the Pharisees of Jerusalem, associated with the scribes of the Temple. They appear in 3:7 together with the Sadducees as strange companions. The Pharisees associated with the local synagogues of Galilee had different political allegiances. Yet Matthew does not make this distinction. He lumps them together. What he does probably have in mind, when he mentions them, is the entire religious leadership of the city of Jerusalem, not only the Sadducees but the Pharisees as well, who also formed part of the leadership of the Sanhedrin (not all of whom, by the way, despised Jesus). They continue to oppose Jesus in chapter 22 and, in chapter 23, Jesus directs his criticism at them before he goes on to predict the destruction of the Temple in chapter 24.

The parable seems to imply that the end of Second Temple Judaism was the result of killing Jesus. That would be our first impression. Indeed, that added to their crimes of killing the prophets who came before him. What was going on, however, was that the tenants were keeping the produce of the vineyard for themselves and thought that by killing the heir of the vineyard they could lay claim to it themselves. Jesus in fact came into the city as the son of David, insinuating that the throne of King David on Mount Zion was his, and therefore, along with it, the rule of the city and of all the people (the vineyard). He came as though he were the judge of the tenants, and in fact he does pronounce sentence on the Temple and city.

How do we interpret the words then that explain in the parable the business of the messengers and the son? “When vintage time drew near he [the owner] sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce.” After them he sent his son. And, in the words of the audience, “other tenants … will deliver the produce to him at the proper time.” What is the produce (the fruit)? Obviously grapes. But what do they signify? In Isaiah 5 it is fair judgment and uprightness. John the Baptist demanded fruit in keeping with repentance. Jesus too called for repentance. In 23:23 the “weightier matters of the Torah” are justice, mercy and good faith. The leadership of Jerusalem failed in their leadership of the people of Israel because they were using their monopoly of the Temple and its scribal establishment for their own ends, which, as Jesus seems to accuse them, was for the accumulation and security of their own wealth. When it comes to having such motivations, he accuses many Pharisees of the same. The leadership of Jerusalem used their influence to manipulate the people to reinforce their own power and wealth. In the Temple, Jesus accused the merchants of making his Father’s house into a bandits’ den. And when asked about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus’ response was that, yes, they should give to Caesar what belongs to him but are they giving to God what belongs to God? Indeed, Jesus’ criticism of their concern for their wealth and the value they place in it is pervasive. This was the theft that Jesus accused them of. Instead of preaching as John the Baptist did, calling for the people’s repentance, they only took care of themselves. Often Jesus interprets the accumulation of wealth as a form of theft.

In fact, if these folk had done their job, the Temple would have remained meaningful. After all, Jesus and the apostles worshiped there. Instead, they allowed hatred to well up under them and eventually destroy the nation. The Sadducees and the whole party of aristocratic priests did nothing to quell the rising tide of hatred; in fact their injustice encouraged it. They were the first to be targeted for assassination with the rebellion began. The Pharisees’ hatred of “outsiders” and the “impure” and the gentiles (the intolerant members of the school of Shammai even murdered members of the tolerant school of Hillel during the rebellion) eventually provided the rational for the war against the Romans. Jesus is referring in the parable to the fact that the leadership in Jerusalem was doing nothing to stem this tide. They were so busy taking care of themselves they did not, apparently, see what was coming until it was too late.

Another question remains. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The verb “produce” here is poieō, to do or make, probably in the sense of producing it (or its profits) to be handed over to the owner of the vineyard. What is the sense in which Jesus refers to the kingdom of God? Usually in Matthew Jesus speaks of the kingdom of the heavens. The word kingdom primarily refers to kingship, only secondarily to territory. I think that it refers here to the delegated authority of stewardship, in the same sense that David’s kingdom represented God’s kingdom over Israel. His authority was delegated by God. Jesus was the king come in the name of YHWH, but the chief priests and scribes and elders and Pharisees were those to whom the stewardship of his kingdom had been committed. They were the deputies who were responsible for the king’s jurisdiction until his return. Now the king had come to collect his due and they did not want to recognize his title. (Historically, what they did not recognize was the authority of Jesus’ demand for accountability to God, an extension of the call to repentance that began with John, or rather with the prophets.) So the stewardship was to be taken from them and given to someone more worthy.

The parable speaks of tenant farmers. They were the stewards of the farm. An equivalent metaphor is shepherds of the Lord’s flock, or perhaps the under-shepherds and hirelings.

This raises the broader question of stewardship. They were stewards of what belonged to the Lord. In this case—and this is not unimportant—what belonged (and still belongs) to the Lord is the people of Israel, the Jews. What also belongs to God is the land, hence it could not truly be bought or sold (hence in the Year of Jubilee it was always to return to those to whom it was originally allotted).

When people ask if the earth is the Lord’s vineyard, they are not off target. Of course the parable is speaking about the leadership of Jerusalem’s stewardship of the people of Israel. But the human race has been given dominion (the “kingdom”) over the earth. In English, the word dominion is a cognate of domicile. The idea is the administration of a household, that which a steward does: namely manage the servants and the stores of the household. God made human beings the stewards of the earth. If humanity does not take care of the earth, they will have hell to pay for it, and the stewardship may well be given to others. The earth does not belong to people! It literally belongs to the Lord. Those Christians who think that “dominion” means we can rape and pillage the earth will have a lot to answer for—even for saying such a thing.

Another analogy is that the well-to-do have a stewardship responsibility with respect to the poor. They have stewardship of their goods for the sake of all the people of earth, not just themselves and their families. Jesus demands a reckoning of that stewardship. This reminds us of another of Jesus’ parables, the one in Luke 16. A rich man “had a steward who was denounced to him for being wasteful with his property. He called for the man and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Draw me up an account of your stewardship because you are not to be my steward any longer.” Jesus was very concerned about the harboring of wealth and property. Those Christians who think that Jesus promoted unrestrained capitalism and opposed socialism are ignoring the gospels. The ownership of wealth is a stewardship of what belongs to God for the care of all of God’s people and of the planet.

The biblical concept of stewardship gets bastardized when churches monopolize it to refer to contributions into their own coffers. We need to recognize that it extends not just to the church (and therefore our contribution to its institutions) but to the kingdom of God, the extension of which includes all people and even the planet.

Parents are also stewards of their children. Our children do not belong to us, nor are we free to treat them that way. They do not belong to the state either, though it is proper for the state to recognize its own responsibility to protect and ensure the rights of children. But, no, children do not belong to the state (this is tyranny), and neither do they belong to their parents. Parents have the primary responsibility to bring them up “into the nurture and admonition of the Lord” until they can become responsible for themselves, and then still they must exercise responsibility toward them as guides and companions and helpers. Grown children too have a responsibility toward their aging parents. All these webs of relationships and responsibilities are matters of stewardship, concerning which we are all accountable to God.

On the other side, the concept of stewardship also has to do with our own person. We are not our own but belong to God. What have we done with what the Lord has given us to take care of? Not only have we taken care of our bodies, but have we fulfilled who we are? Or have we so conformed to other people’s expectations and demands that the intentions of our Creation have been ignored? This is a question that goes to the heart of every person and cannot be evaded. Who has the Lord made you to be? It is not an easy question, because it cannot be measured by standards of others.

1 comment to Matthew 21:33-46, The Accountability of Stewards

  • Peter,

    You make a very important distinction between the nation of Israel and the Jewish leadership at the time of Jesus’s ministry on earth. Interpretations that claim that some commentaries make about this parable as meaning that God is taking the kingdom away from the Jews in toto would contradict Paul’s writings about the salvation of Israel, and we know that Scripture cannot contradict itself.

    Furthermore, as one who has lived most of my life in an area with a large Jewish population, I have heard the opinions by many Jews (co-workers, classmates and clients) about Christianity. At the same time, I am well aware of the anti-Semitic remarks of a number of Christians. And now, currently sharing the Gospel with a practicing Orthodox Jew and another who has departed from her Jewish Orthodox practice but has questions about Christianity, I am becoming even more aware of the divide that needs to be bridged to help them to receive Jesus into their hearts.

    For example, I wonder how many people, both Jews and Christians, realize that for a period of about 10 years, the only people who followed Jesus were counted as Jews at the time of their conversion. If this was not so, the acceptance of Cornelius and his household, clearly Gentiles, would not have been met with the initial controversy with which it was met. That issue would have been settled years earlier. And the same is true about the writers of every New Testament book: how many people stop to think that every one of them was counted as a Jew?

    I realize that I am behind in reading your posts, but I wanted to encourage your work, as untimely as that encouragement might be.


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