First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 17

William Loader

Pentecost 17: 5 October Matthew 21:33-46

This is part two of Jesus' response in parables to being asked about his authority (21:23-27). Last week we considered the first parable which confronted the Pharisees with their rejection of John the Baptist (21:28-32). This week we look at Matthew's use of the parable which he originally found in Mark 12:1-12 as the sole parable which formed part of the response.

There are a few slight revisions which in part adjust the parable to align it more closely with the story of Jesus and his rejection. Instead of a series of individual messengers, as in Mark, Matthew reduces the parable to just three movements: two sets of servants (in the plural), followed by the son. This better fits the notion that Jesus stands in succession to the prophets (maybe to the Law and the Prophets). The image of Jesus as prophet is introduced explicitly in 21:45. This also helps the alignment with John who is also a prophet. The crowds have been thinking of Jesus as a prophet (21:11, 45). The hearers of Matthew's gospel know that he is much more than that; he is, as the parable implies, God's son. Matthew also tinkers with the detail about the killing of the son. Mark says he was killed and then thrown out of the vineyard. Matthew reverses this order to make it match Jesus' execution outside the city.

Matthew's version expands Mark's statement that the vineyard is to be given to others (Mark 12:9). Matthew adds: 'who will produce the fruit in its seasons', in case anyone missed the point about producing fruit, a favourite image for Matthew and central to both John's and Jesus' message (see 7:15-20; 3:10). He also repeats these implications in 21:43, stating that the kingdom of God will be taken away from the chief priests and elders (in 21:45, 'the Pharisees') and 'given to a people producing fruit from it'. The word, here, for people could suggest a Gentile people, although this is unlikely. It certainly means an alternative people. This 'people' will replace the chief priests and elders.

Mark's version of the story stands more directly in connection with the challenge to Jesus' authority, which, in turn, relates more directly to Jesus' action in the temple and the cursing of the fig tree which represents its destruction. For Mark a community which prays will replace the temple (11:23-26; see also 14:58). Here it will be built upon the foundation stone of Christ (12:10-12).

Matthew's focus is not a new temple, but certainly a new people or new leadership. To some extent the issue of leadership is central in both Mark's and Matthew's version of the parable. The parable's image of the vineyard is drawn from the famous song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5. There are subtle distinctions however. There the vineyard is Israel and the vineyard is blamed and destroyed for being unfruitful. In Jesus' parable the problem is not the vineyard, but those responsible for tending it, those in charge. That was also the problem with the temple. After all, the institution itself was based on scripture, indeed divine command, which is why Matthew especially wants to avoid any suggestion it is something of lesser value (just 'made with human hands', as Mark will say in 14:58). So the conflict is over who should run it, or, more broadly, who has responsibility for the kingdom. In an extraordinary statement Matthew has Jesus declare that the kingdom will be taken away from the Pharisees. That implies that in Matthew's view it was indeed in their hands. 23:13 implies much the same thing! They had failed and so now it passes into the hands of 'others'.

This is a claim to leadership of Israel and its religious tradition. Who is making the claim? One might expect Matthew and the Christian scribal leaders associated with him, but that is not what the text says. It declares that now a 'people' replaces Israel's leaders and carries responsibility for enabling Israel to bear fruit. It is not a new group of leaders but a community, the church, which is making this claim. It will now hold the keys of the kingdom. It will now carry responsibility for tending the vineyard. There is a new head of the corner. The rejected stone and his people will assume leadership. This is both a claim and a threat: large stones sometimes fall on people and crush them - so 21:44, a foretaste of what follows in the third parable.

The parable is immediately relevant for Matthew and his community because they have been struggling (without success) to position themselves as leaders of Israel's faith and are being increasingly driven to the margins by resurgent Pharisaism. Our connections with the parable are more oblique because our situation is different. We might, in more reflective mood, contemplate the image of fruitfulness as an image of the community, the congregation. We might reflect on the continuing challenge that we can be busy producing many things other than the fruit which God seeks. We might reflect on our much more subtle ways of beating up God's messengers who call us to become involved in the issues of the day. Loving is a challenge we often savage or sabotage, whether at a personal or a community level.

Interestingly the responsibility is no longer, for Matthew, placed on a select group of leaders but on a community. While that may have reflected a power struggle in Judaism of the 80s, there is a sense in which something of great insight remains. The church is a community and as a community carries the mandate of nurturing and caring for the vineyard. It is another way of defining the church's identity in terms of love. It is also a pattern of thought open to the kind of abusive developments which Matthew attacked in the temple leadership and history finds repeated all too often in the church. Despite what would happen in history Matthew is not abandoning Israel because of such abuses. All this should make it impossible for the church to be smug and superior. The divine part about the church is that we are in the place where we can learn and celebrate the life of God in the vineyard.

Epistle: Pentecost 17: 5 October  Philippians 3:4b-14

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