Matthew is a self-hating Israelite. Or as David Lose put it in his blog this week, “I kind of think Matthew’s a punk.” In this case, what both Lose and I are referring to is the fact that this week’s passage is all about manipulating people to dislike the same people Matthew dislikes—in this case the scribes and the Pharisees. I will openly admit that much of what I am putting together here is in line with what Lose said in his blog, You can check it out here: Crazy Love.
But I want to build one more thing into the conversation where I don’t think Lose went far enough.
So let’s review…This is the parable of the wicked tenants. Land Owner sets up a nice vineyard, rents it out, tenants aren’t paying the rent, owner sends servants to collect, tenants beat them, owner sends more servants, tenants beat them, owner sends son, tenants think that if they kill the heir they will inherit the vineyard so they kill him. After telling this story, Jesus asks the crowd of Pharisees what the land owner will do to the tenants when he comes and they script their own demise by suggesting that the owner should kill the wretches. Oh yeah, did Jesus mention that those nasty Pharisees are the wretches? Oops.
Lose nicely goes in the direction of pointing out that the Pharisees are the ones who insist on killing the wretches—not Jesus—though that is often the assumption we too make when we talk about this passage. We think Jesus says here that God is gonna come knocking and kill those awful Pharisees who have acted so atrociously with the gifts God gave them. But Jesus doesn’t say that. The Pharisees do. This points toward our systems of injustice and misunderstanding of grace. If we take Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection as the extension of the story, Christ doesn’t put them to death at all, but comes back to life to remind them again of God’s love!
So that is a summation of Lose’s point, but I wanted to extend something that he only briefly mentions. Lose mentions that it is passages like these that lead to anti-Semitism. Christians have had a history of pointing at passages like this and saying, “Oh, Look! See Jesus says the Jews are disinherited and that we ought to kill those wretches.”
First of all, as Lose points out above, Jesus never said that. Jesus does say that those who reject the cornerstone will miss out on the kingdom of heaven (we will save defining that point for another post). Jesus never says anything about violence, or that the Jews should be the target of it! Further—this isn’t about Jews—certainly not modern ones!
I think in this case it is quite the opposite—Jesus is not referring to Jews in general, but religious elitist who think that they are entitled to the kingdom of heaven because of their own work. They think they are the ones who worked the vineyard, they should benefit from it—not the vineyard owner that rented them the land in the first place. This passage is a reminder to us that none of us created this world. Any benefit we reap from our work is a direct result of God’s gifts. That is why Christ points back at Psalms and Isaiah and their commentary on Israel. The cornerstone verse is not about accepting or rejecting Christ—it is a reminder that God offered grace to the Israelites (the cornerstone that was rejected) in that God cared for Israel when others rejected them. This is a passage reminding them that they couldn’t be where they are today without God having taken extraordinary care of the people of Israel when they were rejected.
If we are to see this as a reminder of God’s Grace and how important it is for us to always remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are where we are, then this has nothing to do with Jewish people, and everything to do with religious elitism and entitlement! So who is in the role of the Pharisees condemning themselves? Not Jews, but Christian Elitists who now believe we are the “Saved” ones! This is a warning to all of us highly religious folk who think that because of who we are and the way we act or what we believe, God is going to treat us special. IT’S NOT ABOUT US! IT IS ABOUT GOD’S GRACE! There should be nothing antisemitic about this; rather, this should be a reminder to us of how reliant we truly are on God. This brings to mind another passage in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
Unfortunately, that is often how we read scripture—it is about all those other awful people, but not us. Let’s take a lesson here and remember to give thanks. All we have is because of God’s Grace, not because of our beliefs, what we do, or who we are. Let’s take time to be thankful for the great gifts we have, and make sure that we pass those gifts on to others as well!