Robert Capon – Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Tonight we will be reading the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32 and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21:33-46. Please read chapter 8 “The Eye of the Hurricane” in Part III of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

The Context:

Beginning in Matthew 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and proceeds to the Temple where he drives out the moneychangers and overturns their currency exchange tables. He then curses the unfruitful fig tree, instructing his disciples that they also have such power if they have faith in him. Jesus then reenters the Temple where he is engaged by the chief priests and elders who ask him “By what authority are you doing these things.” After a brief colloquy about John the Baptist, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders the Parable of the Lost Son immediately followed by the Parable of Wicked Tenants.

In many of the previous parables that we have looked at, Jesus contrasts the Pharisees with his followers and those who place their faith in him and not in their own righteousness. In the readings tonight, Jesus takes these teachings directly into the Temple and those in charge of the Temple. These are not the Pharisees or other religious leaders in the hinterland of Galilee that Jesus is addressing, but those who exercise the most power – spiritually, culturally, and politically. These parables will also provide an extended introduction to Jesus’ direct condemnation of these same religious leaders in the seven woes of Matthew 23.

The Parable:

“Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes?’ (
Ps. 118:22-23)

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” The one who falls on this 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 perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet. (Matt. 21:33-46).

The Basic Interpretation:

Most of the parables we have encountered are told either from an outsider’s perspective who is observing the events or told from the point of view of the character representing God. This parable is somewhat unique in that it is told from the point of view of the characters that represent the religious leaders. In telling the parable from this perspective, Jesus is not subtle.

The householder (God) has developed and planted the vineyard of Israel. Isa. 5:2. He leases the property to certain Tenants (religious leaders). The householder then sends his agents (the prophets) to the Tenants, who are then killed by them because the agents want the Tenants to fulfill their duties to the householder. 1 Kings 18:13, Neh. 9:26. And finally the householder sends his own Son (Jesus) who is also killed by them. Therefore, as even the chief priests and elders know, God will not deal with them well. Luke 11:47. In short, these tenants have placed burdens on the people beyond what God required so that they could increase their power. Ps. 51:16-17. This teaching that the religious leaders who trust in their own righteousness are evil caretakers of Israel has a long history within the prophetic tradition. See, Amos 5:18-27, Ezek. 34, Malachi 1:6-14.

There is not a lot of nuance to this parable, which is why even the chief priests and Pharisees perceived that he was speaking about them. v.45. Jesus fully intends this basic understanding to be exactly what he means. However, as the seen-on-TV spokesman will tell you, there is more.

Time:

The time aspect of this parable is an understated but important part of the parable. The parable takes place in the kairos of the fruits. Matt. 21:34. As we looked at in the Parable of the Growing Seed, God’s perfect timing is one of Kairos (not Chronos). Jesus is telling his audience that the perfect timing of God’s harvest is now. They can either participate in the harvest or they can hinder it. In the parable, the wicked tenants (the religious leaders) choose to hinder the harvest.

Unlike the householder who thinks in Kairos, the tenants appear to think in Chronos. The tenants are merely killing off the householder’s agents and even his son, but under no circumstances would that legally entitle them to ownership of the vineyard. Tenants simply do not inherit from landlords. The only way that their reasoning could make sense is if they assumed that the householder was so far away (or, in the case of the Judean authorities, that the day of reckoning was so far off) that they could live out the time of their stewardship before the judgment descended upon them. p.451.

The difference in this time perception is part of the judgment of the parable. The question is whether we believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand or not. Matt. 10:6. From householders’ perspective the time of the harvest is now, but from the tenant’s perspective, the time is so far off as to be inconsequential. To paraphrase of one my favorite theologians, from God’s perspective, the judgment and resurrection at the last day is well underway now.

Authority (exousia):

Another primary purpose of this parable, as Capon reminds us, is the assertion of Jesus’ authority over these religious leaders. They are merely caretakers for God, he is the Son of God. The prophets have prepared the way for his own coming – and who, in their own time, were no more acceptable to the authorities than Jesus is now. p.450. But Jesus’ authority is not something new but comes from a long lineage.

But the answer in the parable is not simply that Jesus has authority, but that the authority the religious leaders have will be taken from them. The stewardship of the mystery of salvation will be taken away from the present authorities who have exercised it in unfaith and it will be given to others who will exercise it in faith. Moreover, those others will be able to stand at the judgment that looks only at faith because they will have done the “one thing necessary”: they will have accepted, rather than rejected, the Son in his paradoxically mild coming. They will have recognized his all-reconciling, left-handed exousia and they will stand approved because of their trust. But the authorities – even though they, too, are in fact just as much within the power of his reconciliation – will have cut themselves off from that power. p.452.

Stumbling Block:

Finally, Capon wants us to focus on Jesus’ use of  Psalm 118: The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. As Capon writes:  Jesus is saying quite clearly, in other words, that not only is his own mild exousia unacceptable to their unfaith; it is also and nevertheless – in its very unacceptability- the cornerstone of their salvation, even though they will not trust it. The world is saved only by his passion, death, and resurrection, not by any of the devices that, in its unbelief, it thinks it can take refuge in. Furthermore, that same unacceptability will be the cornerstone of their judgment and of the world’s. p.452.

This stone, this faith in Jesus’ authority, death, and resurrection, is not simply a blockade to salvation, but it is an agency of judgment and destruction itself: The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls. v.44. As Capon writes:  The world perennially trips over him in unbelief; and when he comes in judgment to its unfaith, his vindication of it by grace through faith simply grinds to powder the irrelevant, lost life on which it chose to rely. The Stumbling Block stands in judgment of all other means of salvation and grinds down into obliviation. It is faith, not righteousness, where the Kingdom is found.

Our Judgment:

As we continue to read through the parables of judgment, Capon will usually remind us that the self-righteous, works-based religion is not found in the past, but is alive and well in most religious settings, including the Church. Grace is offensive regardless of what we might otherwise say. The first instinct of most Christians, after they have smiled indulgently at the preacher’s charmingly easygoing concept of salvation, is to nail him to the wall for knocking the props out from under divine retribution for nasty deeds. They do not want grace, they want law. Like the stupid tenants in the parable, they try to stop the coming of the paradoxical Power that alone can keep them in business, and they take their refuge in a lot of prudential nonsense that only insures their going out of it.

They don’t stop the Power, of course. Jesus died for the sins of those who killed him – even for the sins of unbelief by which we kill him all over again. In the end, though, it is just sad. How unhappy to put ourselves on the losing end of a deal that even our messing up can’t really sour! How melancholy not to believe that all he ever wanted was for us to believe! How just plain dumb! p.454

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Shrimp & Grits. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith, but Israel, who did strive for the law of righteousness, did not attain that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone.  

Romans 9:30-32

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