Civilized Civilization

Matthew 21:33-41- Parable of the tenant farmers

[Listen to another parable…] There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death. “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

[Jesus asked the Chief Priests and the Pharisees] “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

What Kind of Civilization Do We Desire?

What Kind of Civilization Do We Desire? Sociologist Margaret Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. So she, as all good teachers do, reversed the question back to her students. They offered examples of when humans formed tools like shovels, fish hooks, cookware, and grinding stones. She listened patiently and then said, “These were important advancements, but they do not speak to civilization, our ability to live together in authentic community.” She went on to say that she considered the first signs of civilization to be a healed thighbone. Mead explained that in the animal world if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t find food. You can’t access water. You become the prey. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken thighbone that had healed suggests that someone had taken the time to stay with the fallen one, had bound and treated the wound, had carried that person to safety, and had cared for that person during recovery. Healing someone through difficulty is the beginning of a civilized culture. [i]

Our Gospel lesson for today gives us a glimpse into the nature of culture in Jesus’ day and what changes would be necessary to create the kind of civilization God desired. It’s a parable about a landowner and his relationship with his tenant farmers. When it came time to collect his share of the produce, he sent servants, twice, but the tenants beat them and threw them out. Finally, the landlord sent his son, and the tenants killed him. When Jesus asked what the owner of such a vineyard would do to the tenant farmers, the Jewish leaders answered in a way that was entirely expected. They said the landowner will take his vengeance on the tenants by killing them. An eye for an eye type of thinking.

Let’s pause here for a moment and think about that response. Is this answer problematic for anyone else? Well, it was for Jesus because he went on to declare that the power the Pharisees enjoyed would be taken away and “…given, to a people who produce fruit.” (v.43) Which, of course, didn’t sit well with them.

So, considering his response, I don’t think the problem here is with the text itself. The problem we must address is the way the Church has traditionally interpreted this parable. We have tended to view it as an allegory for the way God works—the landlord is God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jewish leaders, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus. Okay. That makes sense, right?

But if we read the parable that way, it portrays God as an absentee landlord who makes unjust demands of those he has put in charge of his vineyard. And in this scenario, God apparently doesn’t know very much about how to be an absentee landlord, because he sent his servants, twice, to collect the rent without any protection. And in the end, the Pharisees shared a view of God that reflected their cultural bias. They offered a view a vengeful god, represented by the landowner, who was within his rights to take revenge on those who had opposed him. [ii] 

Now, I don’t know about you, but this allegorical interpretation, this image of a vengeful God, doesn’t work for me. I mean, contextually speaking, it’s not at all consistent with the image of God that Jesus paints all throughout the gospels. He paints the image of a God who is kind and generous toward the just and the unjust alike. [iii]  Jesus consistently shares an image of God as liberator, he shares a God who desires peace and wholeness for all people; Jesus’ God is, in the ends, a God of justice.

So, if that’s the case, what’s really going on here? What are we meant to “take-away” of this parable?

Well, I have already illuded to the fact that I believe Jesus is telling us this story to illustrate something about the civilization in which he was living. I mean, in order to gain a deeper understanding of this parable, we must first understand the landlords in that age. You see, they would take such a large cut of the profit that the tenant farmers in their employ were left with barely enough to keep their families alive. Jesus shared this parable with the Pharisees to hold them accountable for mistreating the poor in their civilization.

So, on a deeper level then, this passage isn’t about vengeance at all, rather it’s about Justice. It’s about the present Realm of God, a Realm that operates with a different set of rules. It operates on the basis of God’s grace and unconditional love rather than hatred or exclusion. God’s Realm operates from a place of unfailing mercy and forgiveness rather than the specter of God’s vengeance.

And yes, you can find places in the Bible, Romans 12 for example, where the Apostle offers a “vengeance is mine says the Lord” kind of thinking. But even in Paul’s writings, context matters. I say that because he isn’t advocating for God wiping out all one’s enemies. We know this because the very next line in his letter to the Romans is, “…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink.”

And this is important stuff! It’s important because how we interpretate the Bible, how we view the nature of God, and how we integrate that interpretation and perspective into our lives and relationships determines what kind of civilization we desire to create.

I mean, do we want to live in a civilization where we walk past the wounded stranger, like the priest and the Levite in Luke’s Good Samaritan story or will we tend to the “broken thighbone” of our neighbor, no matter where that neighbor comes from or how that neighbor worships, or who that neighbor loves? Do we want to live in a civilization where “might makes right” even if the “mighty” version of “right” is unjust? Do we want to live in a civilization that cages children because they come from the wrong side of some human-drawn line on a map or will we heed the words of Jesus and welcome the stranger, offer hospitality to the foreigner; Jesus said, “…let the children come to me and do not hinder them?” Do we want to live in a civilization where one race is privileged while all others are treated as inferior or will we risk advocating for racial justice? Do we want to live in a civilization that consumes, and consumes, and consumes all of Mother Earth’s natural resources, even at the cost of our own existence or will we take climate change, and the resulting hurricanes and wildfires and pandemics, seriously? My friends, so much of our life and our faith finally boils down to this single question: What kind of civilization do we desire? Let us ponder that question and hold it in our hearts.

Amen and Amen.


[i] Cameron Trimble Signs of Civilization. Plotting Faith: An (Almost) Daily Devotional from The Center for Progressive Renewal  (www.cameron@convrganceus.org) Nov. 29, 2020

[ii] Alan Brehm. Vengeance? (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2011

[iii] For this viewpoint, see Barbara Reid, “Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Non-violence,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004): 252-53, 255. 

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