Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 21:23-27
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the question of authority has been hanging in the air. The reader has known since chapter 7 that it is Jesus, rather than those aligned with the ruling powers, who “taught them as one having authority” (Mt 7:29). The ruling elite cannot deny Jesus’ authority, but they have desperately tried to discredit it as “by Beelzebul” (12:24, 27).
The chief priests and elders in today’s reading question Jesus about the source of his authority. It is clear, of course, that they are not asking because they want to know the answer. Their minds are already made up about Jesus. They are asking, rather, to publicly challenge Jesus’ honour. If they can best Jesus in this honour-challenge, they can undermine his authority in the eyes of the crowd.
Rather than simply answering the question on their terms however, Jesus, as he so often does, sees below the surface. He well knows their motives and that whatever answer he gives will be interpreted by them as confirmation of their prejudices. Refusing to answer the question on their terms, Jesus returns their honour challenge with a counter-question.
In his counter-question, Jesus brilliantly exposes the fragility of the temple elite’s own authority. They are unable to articulate their true ideological position, not because they don’t know the answer, but because their true position (perhaps like many politicians!) is something they don’t want the people to know. Though they pretend otherwise, the values they stand for are antithetical to those John preached, but they would only speak such a truth in the private spaces of the powerful—never amongst the “common” people. They don’t need to articulate it amongst the common people though, because in their silence the people already know.
The exchange reveals the contrasting nature of Jesus’ authority and that of the temple elite. One kind of authority is recognised by those on the underside because it stands on justice and restoration of the poor and oppressed. The other kind is authority held by the ruling elite, which stands on pretence and coercion. Matthew’s readers are left in no doubt as to which kind of authority is of God.
- In what ways have you experienced authority used positively or negatively?
- What do you think makes authority legitimate?
- In what ways does today’s reading challenge or encourage you?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 21:28-32
With Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the stakes have been raised. Since he began teaching, Jesus has been subverting notions of whose “side” God is on. God, according to Matthew’s Jesus, is with the poor, the mourning, the meek, those denied justice, and those persecuted by the powerful (Mt 5:3-12). Now, however, rather than saying such things amongst the poor of Galilee, he is saying them in the heart of political and economic power in the region. In today’s reading, Jesus’ encounter with the chief priests and the elders continues, as he tells the first of two parables which pointedly contradict their notions of whose “side” God is on. Jesus and the political and religious elite of Jerusalem are engaged in a clash of ideals, a fierce struggle to name what is good, what is just, what is of God.
With the first parable, Jesus affirms that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” No doubt, it would have been highly offensive for the Jerusalem elite to hear that those despised for “selling out” to Rome and their personal immorality were more aligned with God’s reign than they.
Following on now from the question about the source of Jesus’ authority and the elite’s refusal to answer Jesus’ counter-question (Mt 21:23-27), Jesus answers it for them. They did not believe John nor accept the “way of justice” he preached. Unlike the tax collectors and prostitutes, who believed John’s preaching about “the way of justice,” the chief priests and elders could not believe John’s view of what is just.1
Justice for the powerful looks very different to justice for those on the underside. John came to know this better than anyone, as he called Herod Antipas to justice but fell victim to the “justice” of the state. In this parable, Jesus affirms that it is those on the underside who have heard correctly what God’s justice looks like and aligned themselves accordingly. It is they, not the temple elite, who are on God’s side. In the next parable, he will drive it home.
- How do you experience the “fierce struggle to name what is good”?
- Take a moment to reflect on the kind of justice that Jesus has embodied throughout Matthew’s Gospel. How would you describe it?
- In what ways is God’s Spirit prompting you to engage in God’s justice this week?
Pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1 The word used here for “believe”, (pisteuó) is closely linked to the word used for faith, (pistis). It’s meaning incorporates both believing in a person or idea, and demonstrating allegiance to it—living as though one believes it!
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 21:33-46
Having just declared that the tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before the temple elite, Jesus has subverted the dominant ideological notions of what, and who, is good. Now he will tell another parable—a story shockingly subversive—which will drive his point home.
The Parable of the Tenants has traditionally been read as an allegory of salvation history—that is, a story about Jesus’ coming and the kingdom of God being taken from Jews and given to Gentiles. Such a reading is problematic, however, not least for the historical ways in which it has contributed to demonisation of and violence toward Jews. An allegorical interpretation, however, is not the only way the parable can be understood. Alternatively, we might interpret this parable about absentee landlords and tenant farmers as a story about, well, absentee landlords and tenant farmers.2
To do this, we need to remember something of the historical conditions into which the story was told. As Rome took over the ancient Near East, they extracted taxes and tributes from the nations they had subjugated, and as economies moved from barter to money economies, the strain on peasant farmers, who made up much of the rural population, was exacerbated. In Palestine, Galilean and Judean farmers paid taxes to the Jerusalem rulers as well, meaning up to somewhere between half and two-thirds of their livelihoods were taken.3 For those who encountered a bad season or bout of illness or injury, it meant falling into a cycle of debt which would lead to first offering their land as collateral, before inevitably losing it altogether to rich landowners. Perhaps they might be allowed to stay and work the land as tenant farmers, but having lost control of the land, they would no longer be able to farm produce which would sustain themselves and their families. Rather, they would farm more lucrative crops like olives and grapes. The slippery slope to destitution and even death was close at hand. In such a predicament, many would be forced to leave the land which had been their family trust for generations, even centuries, and seek work in the urban centres. We may well imagine that some in Matthew’s urban community in Antioch knew this predicament first-hand.
As Jesus begins the parable, his words would likely have been familiar to his hearers, who knew a similar story told by the prophet Isaiah. In it, he described a vineyard which was indeed an allegorical picture of the leaders of Israel who were exploiting the people and concentrating land control in the hands of the few (Isaiah 5:1-8). Isaiah’s parable begins the very same way in which Jesus’ does, with the owner planting the vineyard and building a winepress and watchtower. Having evoked Isaiah’s parable, however, Jesus jolts his hearers back to real-life Palestine with the all too familiar situation of tenant farmers who had lost control of their land to an absentee landlord—a wealthy member of the elite class who had gained the land to increase his already considerable wealth by foreclosing on loans made to desperate debtors.
The tenants, having been forced into servitude and the struggle for survival, revolt, even to the drastic point of murdering the owner’s son. When Jesus questions his audience, presumably still the temple authorities of 21:23, on what will come of the tenants, there is nothing surprising about their answer. They well know how to deal with those who don’t comply. Violent revolt always leads to “wretched ends.”
The “aha moment” of the parable is not that the tenants are swiftly and violently dealt with. Rather, the parable’s surprise—even shock—comes in the next verse. Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 118:22-23 has traditionally been understood to refer to Jesus himself. However, the Psalm originally referred to the Jewish people as a whole. Luise Shottroff writes, “This psalm verse already had a history, before the origins of the New Testament, as a text of hope for the suffering Jewish people, comparable to the songs about the suffering servant in Deutero-Isaiah.”4 In other words, God is on the side of those suffering on the underside of oppression, and will act for their liberation. The punchline of the parable is that what the chief priests and elders had assumed—that God rejects the tenants and vindicates the landowner—is the wrong way around.
To be clear, the Parable of the Tenants is not a parable advocating violent revolt. If anything, it points to the futility of violence. In any case, Jesus has been clear elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel about the centrality of nonviolence and enemy-love in the reign of God (Mt 5:38-48). That is why this parable is so shocking. Jesus exposes the violence of a system, which forced families from their land and into destitution while enabling the elite to gain control of the wealth and land rightfully belonging to the people, as being greater even than the violence committed by the tenants. The wealthy landowners who had driven the poor from their land are the real criminals.
No wonder the chief priests and the Pharisees wanted to arrest him.
- Take a moment to reflect on today’s reading. What questions does it stir?
- Where do you see systems and structures which result in the exploitation of the poor in today’s world?
- In what ways do you recognise yourself in this parable? Are there ways you identify with the tenants, the landowner, or both?
- Are there ways in which God is stirring you to respond to today’s reading?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
2 This reading of the parable draws on William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 98-113, and Luise Shottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 15-28, though it differs at some points.
3Tarren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2001), 135.
4Shottroff, Parables of Jesus, 23.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Shalom
Read: Isaiah 65:17-25
- How might we participate in God’s shalom this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer