Who Were the Wicked Tenants?
by Lois Tverberg

"A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.' "But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." ...The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Matthew 20:9-16

The parable above has been a source of Jewish persecution for thousands of years, because it has been interpreted as a blanket condemnation of the Jews by Jesus, with the conclusion that God would nullify the covenant he made with them and replace them with the Gentile Christian church. Reading the parable more carefully in light of the history of that time can yield important insights.

This parable is based on an allusion to Isaiah 5, which describes Israel as a vineyard that God planted. Many early Jewish sources spoke of Israel as God's "vineyard," and the logical conclusion was that the "tenants of the vineyard" would be the ones charged to take care of it, which would be the priestly leadership. The people, of course, were the vineyard itself. 1

One detail that is little known but critical for understanding this parable is that in the hundred years preceding Jesus’ ministry, the priestly leadership had become extremely corrupt. The family that had been in power for many years in Jesus’ time was the house of Annas. This family was extremely wealthy and powerful, and functioned much like a mafia. They controlled the money-changing tables at the Temple which were called “booths of Annas.” They charged greatly inflated prices for sacrificial animals, extorted money, and stole funds intended to support other priests who had no other income.2 A poem from that time describes the plight of the people under the corruption of the priestly families:

Woe to me because of the house of Boethus, woe is me because of their staves. Woe to me because of the house of Hanan [Annas], woe is me because of their whispering. Woe to me because of the house of Kathros, woe is me because of their pens. Woe to me because of the house of Ismael ben Phiabi, woe is me because of their fists. For they are high priests and their sons are treasurers and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves.3

We see from this that the Jewish leadership was not representative of the Jewish people — their corruption robbed people of the ability to worship God in the temple that he established. It was the leaders' hatred for Jesus, not the people's, that brought his death. Luke 20:16 says that the priests wanted to seize him immediately but could not, because Jesus was extremely popular with the people. These corrupt individuals were responsible for Jesus' trial and execution, and in the book of Acts we read that they were the main persecutors of the early church. (Acts 4:1-3, 5:17-18)

Making this distinction shows that the Jewish people as a whole were not responsible for Jesus' execution, although of course all mankind is to blame for Jesus’ death because of our sins. Ironically, God used the corrupt leadership of Jesus’ time to establish him as King and High Priest of a kingdom that would have no end.

1 Luke and the Wicked Tenants, Richard H. Anderson, Journal of Biblical Studies 1:1.

2 From Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.2 (205-207). See also New Light on Jesus' Last Week, at www.egrc.net

3 Babylonian Talmud Pesahim, 57a; Tosephta Menahoth 13:21. As quoted in Luke and the Wicked Tenants, above.

     
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