Might Jesus have been a Pharisee? A commentary on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

Jesus offers three parables concerning vineyards. Two weeks ago we explored in the sermon entitled Lord, do not give us our just deserts, the parable about the hiring and payment of workers in the vineyard. The storyline of this parable presents us with an interesting twist on generosity. We are shown that the generosity of God is somewhat reckless and makes no sense to us. It is in fact, an affront to our normal expectations of fairness. It turns our sense of justice upside-down.

Last week in the parable of the two sons concerning their father’s request to work in the family vineyard we explored our need to experience ourselves making a difference in the wider world. By accepting God’s call for us to enter into a collaborate participation within a parish community, we can make a difference in the world. You can read more at Making a difference.

wicked tenantsToday we receive a further parable concerning the action of wicked tenants who through murder attempt to dispossess a vineyard’s rightful owner. Of the three vineyard parables this is the most challenging and difficult for us to interpret.

The parable as a story rooted in a social and economic context

Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem having journeyed from Galilee. As it remains today, Galilee was the northern most province of Jewish territory. In the 1st Century however, the population of Galilee was mixed. A largely, Jewish rural peasantry lived alongside a Greek and Roman urban commercial class. Together with the local Jewish aristocracy, the gentile commercial class owned large tracts of land, which they leased to be farmed by the Jewish tenant farmers. This constituted a traditional feudal economy.

An escalation in rural unrest swept the Galilean countryside as the feudal balance of privileges and obligations between landowner and tenant farmer came under threat from the increasing commercialization of farming, necessary to meet the growing food security needs of the Roman Empire. This situation, not unknown in our own day resulted in severe exploitation of the tenant farmers, who in many cases were being reduced to landless peasant laborers. The plight of the itinerant peasant laborers is clearly at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.

The parable of the wicked tenants is a tale of the violent resistance of tenant leaseholders to a shifting economy, a shift that results in growing general unrest throughout the Galilean countryside. 

The parable as a story rooted in a conflict between power and authority

Having arrived in the Jerusalem Temple, Matthew shows Jesus embroiled in an escalating argument with the Temple authorities. The Jerusalem Temple was not only the center of Jewish religion, it was also an oppressive socio-economic institution that taxed and controlled the populace as a proxy of the Roman occupation. Jesus is directly challenging the corruption of religious authority through the influences of economic and social power.

In the vineyard parables, and especially in the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus is asserting his claim to represent the Kingdom authority of God. The Kingdom of God is a concept at the heart of the Oral Tradition of the Jewish prophets. This tradition rails continually against the political corruption of the Law of Moses and the exploitation of power under the guise of religious authority.

Listen to another parable, Jesus says to the priests and scribes. By telling the story  as a story echoing the socio-economic tensions of the time, Jesus plays on their aristocratic outrage in the face of the affront to their rightful privileges posed by resistance of the populace. In this reading the Temple Authorities see themselves as the legal landowner. Yet, Jesus’ story also contextualizes a much older story that would be known to his hearers. Jesus echoes Isaiah’s vineyard parable set as the first reading of 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

Parable genre

The parable is a form of story telling that lures hearers into a false sense of security. It invites them to identify with the familiar elements in the storyline so as to paint themselves in the best light. Just when they are comfortable it whacks them in the side of the head with a conclusion that is so counter intuitive as to seem outrageous.

Now when 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 lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time’. Now Jesus whacks them. Have you never read the scriptures: … when the chief priest and the Pharisees hear this … they realized that he was speaking about them.

Matthew’s use of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants

Matthew adapts the parable to speak to his own context. For Jesus, this parable, along with all the parables he tells, but especially the vineyard parables, proclaims the expectation of the Kingdom of God. The expectation of the Kingdom reveals how God sees things within the context of the in-breaking of a new divine order. For Matthew the parable becomes a story about the Christian Church. Matthew and all the Evangelists conflate the Kingdom and the Church. To this day we inherit a long tradition of seeing the Kingdom and the Church as if they are coterminous. Jesus speaks only about the Kingdom.

Following Matthew’s lead, the Christian Church, conflating Kingdom and Church, has interpreted this parable as a parable of how God as the landowner has expelled the wicked Jewish tenants and given the vineyard to the new Christian tenants. God sends the prophets of Israel again and again to call the Jewish tenants to pay what they owe. Each time they kill the prophet. Finally, they kill the heir, i.e. Jesus. God punishes Israel by removing it from the tenancy.

This reflects the struggle of Matthew’s small and fragile Christian community against the powerful synagogues with their Pharisee rabbis. Matthew’s treatment is understandable within his context. Yet, from the end of chapter 21 and throughout 22, Matthew ratchets up an astonishing invective against the Pharisees. 2000 years of anti-Semitism flow from Matthew’s and the other Evangelists adaptations of the teaching of Jesus to their contexts.

This last week, our Jewish neighbors have been celebrating their High Holy Days, from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year. For Christians to receive this gospel with its overt anti-Semitism needs some further comment.

An astonishing assertion

Jesus’ argument is with the Temple Authorities, the priests and scribes of the aristocratic Sadducee party. By contrast the Pharisees represented a great religious reform movement that vehemently opposed the Jerusalem-based, Sadducee priesthood with its strangle-hold on power. 

There is considerable evidence to suppose that Jesus was himself, a Pharisee. Jesus sees the teaching of the Prophets, the Oral Tradition, as a complementary authority to the Law of Moses. This is also the Pharisee position. His teaching on the resurrection of the dead is a Pharisee teaching. His emphasis on the coming of the Kingdom of God is a Pharisee expectation. Even if Jesus was not actually a card carrying Pharisee, his view of the world was clearly aligned with theirs. Jesus clearly preaches and teaches within the great awakening that gives rise to the Pharisaic reform movement taking place in 1st Century Judaism.

The 1st century socio-economic tensions that Jesus echos in his teachings on the Kingdom of God finally boil over into series of Jewish rebellions against the Romans in the 60’s AD. The Jewish wars culminate in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD. With the end of the Temple there is an end of the priesthood. With the loss of the Temple and its power structure in Jewish society the Sadducee’s fade from history. The Pharisees become the movement that reconstitutes Judaism, a new Judaism that blossoms into the rabbinic movement that gives Judaism its shape today. This process is going on along side a similar process that is leading to the emergence of the Christian Church. Each movement reflects many common elements.

Within the time frame in which Matthew is writing the rabbis, who are codifying a reformed Judaism finally decide that it’s no longer judicious to tolerate the Jewish Christians within the broad tent of the synagogue. They expel the Christian Jews. Pharisaic Judaism and the young Christian Church, despite their clear similarities, now become bitter rivals. The animosity between Jew and Christian begins here in the final decade of the 1st century. This is why Matthew slips the Pharisees in as allies of the priests and the scribes in their confrontation with Jesus. Matthew does so not because they were actually Jesus’ rivals, but because they are really his rivals, with whom he and his community are in tension. 

Our use of the parable of the wicked tenants

This is a parable that has been traditionally interpreted as pointing to God’s repudiation of his covenant with Israel. Yet, for me it is the parable that calls us as Christians to take a long hard at our complacency.

The ancient prejudice

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise. We must not blindly accept the Gospel writers contextualization of 1st and 2nd Century Jewish-Christian conflict as the justification for the perpetuation of anti-Semitism. It is currently very difficult, especially for American Jewry to distinguish between the State of Israel and the religion of Judaism. Rabbi’s tread carefully along a tightrope they are bound to fall off at some point. They will either offend conservative members who conflate Israel and Judaism, or they will offend liberal members who feel strongly that a Jewish voice must be heard in critique of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Christians must not participate in a rise of anti-Semitism under the guise of a critique of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. If it’s not possible at the moment for Jews to always keep the two separate, there is no excuse for us failing to do so.

A selective deafness

We can be surprising deaf at those times when we separate Jesus’ clear teaching on the expectations of the Kingdom of God from the mission of the Church. The Church is not the Kingdom, though its charge is to be an agent of the Kingdom. As the Church we are called to work tirelessly in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom to advance the cause of justice in this world.

The Church frustrates the expectations of Kingdom when Christians fain hard of hearing, refusing to hear the radical message on social and economic justice that lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God.


Our third sin is that of self-satisfaction and self-assertion. As Episcopalians we need to repent of our uncritical acceptance of certain social values as Christian values. The social values of the autonomous individual, strong and independent, tempt us into the sin of believing that we are the authors of our own salvation. The benefits of a secure and successful life are not the fruits of our own cleverness. They are the gifts from God for which the correct response is gratitude. Knowing our dependence on God’s reckless generosity, we take the gifts given us to enjoy, so that through self-giving and generous lives, we express our gratitude by working together to build the Kingdom God in our several generations.

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