Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The rebellious tenants Luke 20 9-19

Many of the members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, would, themselves, have been absentee landlords. Some of them may even have experienced the difficulty of collecting rents and tithes from their tenants: some may even have experienced the extreme case that Jesus here exemplifies of servants sent to collect the dues being beaten up, abused or threatened. It was a story he may have witnessed many times in his life in Galilee, which had become increasingly lawless and rebellious. So it was easy for Jesus to suck his Jerusalem hearers into being sympathetic with the landlord in his story. To them the vineyard would have been their Galilean estates, and the escalation of violence shown to their representatives, a barometer of the increasing rebelliousness of that truculent territory, where zealots were, finally, seeking to claim independence both from them and Rome. They may have been pleased that, at last, Jesus seemed to be taking on real issues of importance, siding with them against these dangerous northern dissidents.

But Jesus was actually speaking within the prophetic tradition in which the vineyard stood for Israel. The ruling class seem to be under the illusion that they can control the country: the prophets, God=s messengers are persecuted. With the sending of his son he plays the last card in his pack. Kill him and the vineyard will be in the hands of the tenants for ever. The parable plays up the patience of the landowner to a most unlikely degree. Few landowners would be either so foolish or have sufficient resources to send so many servants on an unsuccessful mission to collect the rents: in no real case can any landowner have been so naive as to send his beloved son thinking that they would respect him. This is a landowner acting totally irresponsibly. The son is murdered and his body is thrown out of the vineyard to be at the mercy of the wild beasts. Jesus turns to his audience of absentee landlords and asks them what the landowner should do next. The answer comes: AHe will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.@ Indeed some of them might already have done that with their estates. Then Jesus quotes from the very Psalm that had been sung at his entry into Jerusalem two days earlier. It was generally assumed that the rejected one who was restored in that Psalm was David himself, who brought the ark into Jerusalem, and laid the plans for the temple itself. The blind man in Jericho had identified him as the Son of David. The crowds had greeted him with the royal Davidic chorus, ABlessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord@, he who had cleared the temple was himself the chief cornerstone of all that was essential to the salvation of Israel; he was the Son. It was Jesus who had been sent to the vineyard whose body was to be thrown outside the city wall to dogs and crows. And God who had looked for justice saw only bloodshed: who looked for righteousness and heard only a desperate, forsaken cry of a dying man.

This was a clear answer to those who had questioned on whose authority Jesus was acting and speaking. In the context of the parable, John the Baptist had been the last of the prophets who had been killed. Jesus was the Son. If ever there were a self-fulfilling prophecy this was it. The Son was due to be killed: the vineyard was soon to be lost: the new council of tenants had already been formed and trained (the twelve). Just as there was an inevitability about the story of the sower and the magnificent harvest, so also there was a frightful inevitability about this one. The response of the hearers ensured that.

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