The parable of the vineyard and tenants in Luke 20:9-19
This parable was the designated gospel reading for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. As is customary in our church community, the sermon is dialogical. The priest often presents a question or two that he in fact expects us to respond to and think about.
When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will that mean for us? And just as important or maybe even more important, how might our anticipation of the coming of the owner of the vineyard influence and shape who we are as disciples of Jesus and how we live?
I would have responded in the conventional way, assuming or presuming that the owner of the vineyard is a referent to God, had I not just come off reading a couple of books exploring and exposing the seemingly never ending problem of oligarchy.
The first book with a rather presumptuous title, The Collapse of Ancient Antiquity: Greece and Rome as Civilization’s Oligarchic Turning Point is by Michael Hudson, a rather “alt” economist and economic historian. The subject obviously deals with oligarchs of old and is an especially informative context for the parable.
The second book with a rather ominous title, The End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, is by Peter Turchin. Turchin calls himself a “complexity scientist” and advances historical modeling based on a massive and ever-expanding database. His book especially focuses on the problem of elite (oligarch) competition and its degenerative force in current American politics.
After reading Hudson’s examination of Greek and Roman economic history, I refrained from responding in our meeting because I was distracted by a different set of questions.
How would Jewish contemporaries of Jesus be hearing this? Where would they be putting themselves in this story?
Before I start, a comment about Jesus’ parables is warranted. The priest’s question and my question have a correct disposition for “hearing the parable.” We both put ourselves in the story. The parables nearly always have a little, literary IED (improvised explosive device) implanted in the story. Jesus blows up cute little moral fables in order to jolt us into contemplating and acting on a kingdom of God not of this world. If we put ourselves in the story, we can count on Jesus at some point to throw a curve ball and blow up our calculated responses.
Jewish elites decided to collaborate with Roman’s economic system a hundred years earlier than Jesus’ day when they invited general Pompey’s army in to resolve civil conflicts. From then on, the majority of Judeans would incrementally wind up somewhere on the slave spectrum.
How would most Jews who were not oligarchs partnered with Rome be experiencing this story?
Most assuredly, they would identify with the tenants of the vineyard. They would more likely identify “the man,” the absentee elite, as a Roman military officer who has been awarded land in foreign territories as booty, compensation, or a pension plan for brutally conquering people and land for the sake of bolstering some Roman general’s aspirations to move up the elite ladder.
I can’t speak for others, but I have to admit that for years and years, I interpreted the parables in a spiritualized sense and with the presumption that the economic arrangements of my day were exactly like that of Jesus’ day.
It is in fact frightfully the same in some ways. We still have oligarchs doing the same damn greedy thing. But in other ways, it was different, at least in the sense that we phrase the theft of wealth (land, resources, and people) in different terms (like liquidation, foreclosure, quantitative easing, or austerity measures). In one particular and important way, we should reject our picture of a rightful owner of a business/farm who set out to make a decent profit and hired employees from a presumed pool of available laborers.
Let’s talk context of the parable. First, I’ll address the economic context with its social and political effects, followed by the literary context of the parable within the Gospels. After that, I’ll present the interpretive challenge the parable presents both for Jesus’ listeners and for us today.
The Economic Context
How did the “man” acquire the land to plant his vineyard?
We can start with the question: how was land acquired in the Roman controlled territories like ancient Palestine?
Land was acquired in Roman controlled foreign territories in the same way as Roman land in the home territory, only worse. From my own studies and Michael Hudson’s analysis, there is hardly anything revelatory here. Even to this day, land is “acquired” by violent seizure. It is stolen along with the people and valuables within it. One gets land by taking it from some other occupier of it.
An important qualifier is needed here. In my view, there has always been a notion of a common wealth, a communal or public share in every human culture. It is certainly deep-seated in the Bible. To the question, “stolen from who?”, we can say: from the common wealth bank. Along with this, is the ancient notion that ultimately the earth and its inhabitance belong to the gods. The ancient Israelites certainly affirmed their own version of this: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it (Ps 24:1). The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants (Lev 25:23).
Roman wealth was obtained by stripping other regions. It was accumulation by dispossession. Beyond the initial booty of gold and silver (usually stored in temples), land and labor was the biggest and most sustainable wealth to acquire. Wealth was only generated by expansion. Tax and fee foreigners so you don’t upset the local populous or more importantly your soldiers. “Military conquests were followed by a fiscal and creditor conquest of territories in the Republic’s expanding empire” (Hudson, 250).
Wealth was only acquired through what Peter Turchin calls “the wealth pump.” Pump up from the wells of the common wealth in unbridled quantities and hoard to get more. Forget trickled down. Conquering was the only way the Romans could ever think of to accumulate wealth. Generals greatly enriched themselves by the wealth extraction from conquered territories, and just like today, the wealthy swoop up land on the cheap as an investment.
The only real profit from land was tax farming. Agriculture was merely the means.
After conquest, land was awarded, auctioned or annexed to either Roman or local oligarchs. Sometimes it was allocated to colonists—Roman soldiers as payment for service—but mostly to the highest bidder. Land-tenure arrangements inevitably reduced tenants to debt-peonage.
If land was annexed to local oligarchs it came at a steep price. For one, the land was already depleted of laborers either brutally killed in war or sold into slavery. Wealth had also been depleted in attempts to defend territories. Land desolation accompanied wealth and labor depletion.
The prospect of prosperity let alone sustainability for local elites was not promising. Steep taxes, tariffs, and fees were expected and brutally enforced (like in our parable). On top of this, oligarchs often had to pay for the land on credit at steep interest rates. If a local elite were to get through all of that, the only real income was taking a cut over and above the revenues collected for Rome. Many, both Roman and otherwise, bought land on credit expecting to join a publican tax/fee-collecting enterprise to pump enough wealth to not only pay the creditors, but enjoy prosperity.
It was a thoroughly corrupt system where gaming the system was about the only way to stay an elite or become a super elite.
The rules of the game were so skewed that it threw whole regions, like Galilee, into deep debt. All the better for Roman merchants, moneylenders, tax collectors, slave traders, entrepreneurs, shop keepers, and settlers to acquire land from native people bankrupted by Roman taxation.
In regions in and around Galilee, cosmopolitan Roman cities such as Caesarea or Sepphoris bustled with opulence while the inhabitance in places such as Nazareth, a few miles away, languished.
Revolts against such an oppressive system fomented incessantly in the Roman Empire throughout its history and was certainly not restricted to the Jews or foreigners. What is probably more peculiar are local elites partnering with such a system. Extraction was particularly lucrative for Romans in the Asian provinces (what is now known as Turkey and the Middle East) and correspondingly severe for the populace.
One such revolt known as the Vespers of Ephesus (88 BC) illustrates the repulsion of Roman occupation. The massive revolt against Roman rule resulted in the slaughter of over 80,000 Roman inhabitance. Although the revolt was temporarily successful, it only resulted in a brutal crushing of the region by Rome with even more extractive severity imposed.
By the time of Jesus and the telling of this parable, Rome’s “easy money” conquering days were over. The wealth pump was drying up, which only meant all the more suffocating wealth extraction of the populous. The divide between the haves and the have-nots was nearly insurmountable. Collaboration was the only upward mobility option. It was impossible to have any wealth, especially holding land without being a partner with Rome.
Who is “the man?”
We can rule out any notion that the “man” was an independent farmer eking out a humble existence. He was a middleman at best, but likely an estate or plantation owner.
Jewish or not, small landholders usually foreclosed, creating even bigger plantation estates for wealthy Romans. Galilee was especially known for this.
The man could have been among the lower ranks of the Roman army, a member of a military colony, small land holders. These military colonies commonly folded because the occupants were basically trained in warfare not husbandry. It is not likely that our “man” of the parable was of this stock. Roman colonists typically moved their families and considered their new locale home. Even if the soldier was absent due to military duty, he would have left his family behind.
Either way, bankruptcy due to crushing debt was the usual result whether Roman or Jewish. Many a Roman soldier returned to warring or banditry.
Two things seem to indicate that “the man” was farther up the food chain, a high ranking Roman, both militarily and politically. First, he was an absentee landlord. The vineyard was an investment, and tax farming his goal. An absentee landlord was for sure of the “investor” class, acquiring land from financial fortunes (tax, tribute, booty) and real estate awarded or bought on credit. For wealth climbing oligarchs, folding Roman colonies only further enlarged Roman villa estates.
Second, he had capabilities to extract brutal retribution on rebellious debt slaves. This pretty much excludes any Jewish “rich man” from consideration.
To remind, blunt force trauma was always Roman economics 101.
We possibly could have some sympathy for Roman investors. They could be victims of real estate bust cycles. Having bought land on credit and expecting the publican franchise to only grow, many landowners faced a debt crisis.
Be that as it may, in the context of Jesus teaching in the temple, it is not likely that the more common folk in his audience shed a tear for the poor real estate investor. During the time of Jesus, Tiberius granted tax relief and debt forgiveness for indebted elites, but not to the landless poor, small landowners, or foreigners.
In sum, for Jesus’ nearly all Jewish audience (perhaps some Roman soldiers listening in), “the man” was a Roman elite exploiting a corrupt and rigged system. If any thought of a Jewish elite, he too would have been in full exploitation mode.
Who were the tenants and what was the lease about?
Perpetual Roman conquest created a massive pool of cheap labor. Even Roman citizens had to fight to keep from being dispossessed by the abundant supply of slaves. Most agricultural production was done by slaves, not freemen. Most “laborers” were displaced and on the slavery spectrum. Dependent labor and renters were drained of all wealth and means of self-support. Hudson states, “This left tenants with little incentive even to try to extricate themselves from hopeless debt.”
And this brings us to a critical aspect of Jesus’ parable. Attempts at land reform were often incentivized by rioting slaves against their landlords.
Luke’s account makes clear that Jesus is telling the parable primarily “to the people.” I’ll explore further the literary context below, but for now, it seems that from a political economy perspective, the audience would identity more with the tenants than with the “man,” his slaves, or his family. This is even more compelling considering Judah’s perpetual cycle of rebellions against Roman occupation. The Jesus movement could easily be identified with the Zealots.
The context within the Gospel text
All three synoptic Gospels include the parable of the vineyard and the tenants (Mt 21:23-46; Mk 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19). All three place the context of its telling within the heightened tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the temple.
Matthew’s gospel has those who are trying to kill him as the primary and maybe exclusive audience. Interestingly in Matthew’s telling, it is the Jewish oligarchs who answer Jesus’ question: put those miserable wretches to death! Mark also places the Jewish elite as the sole listeners of the parable. In Mark’s telling, Jesus answers his own question: He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Either way, the answer is presented as beyond obvious to those sympathetic with “the man.”
The critical redaction of Luke is that he has “the people” as the primary audience. The people, the blind and lame, tax collectors and prostitutes, children, and his disciples are Jesus’ most direct audience. It is to these people that he asks the question: What will the owner of the vineyard do to them? Like Mark’s account, Jesus answers the primary question, but in Luke’s account “the people” shockingly protest: “Heaven forbid.”
Money-changers, Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes, spies, and leaders of the people are also being addressed in the parable, but in a more subtle and indirect way. This section of the audience is exposed as those trying to kill Jesus but were greatly impeded by the other section of the audience, “the people.”
Perhaps and in a sense, the parable itself blocks off or polices the nefarious intentions.
Another critical contextual element for all the Jewish listeners is the powerful background to nearly any use of the vineyard metaphor and its referent to Isaiah’s infamous prophecy (Isa 5:1-13). The vineyard metaphor was incorporated into many of the Old Testament prophets, and it always references God as the rightful owner of the vineyard. In the Old Testament use, Israel and Judah and its leaders are not the tenants of the vineyard, but the vineyard itself.
Curiously, in the Isaiah passage, the prophet (or God) appeals to “the people” to adjudicate “between me and my vineyard” (Isa 5:3). The focus of Isaiah’s parable is not on tenants, but the vineyard itself, more accurately the fruit of the vineyard. Isaiah makes clear the target of this metaphor—oligarchs enriching themselves at the expense of its inhabitance (Isa 5:8). Sound familiar?
The most immediate context of the parable is wrapped around an issue of authority. On what basis is Jesus’ activism in both word and action authorized or legitimate? More importantly, however, the question of legitimacy was simply the mechanism to get rid of him.
Here, I can refer back to both Hudson and Turchin. Ruling oligarchs used the “legitimacy” card as a common ploy to combat counter-elites who were advocating for debt cancellation and land (wealth) redistribution. The oligarchs would euphemistically label such reformers “tyrants” or “dictators.” Ironically, these reformers were tyrannical when it came to taking back the stolen wealth of oligarchs, returning the common wealth to its rightful status, and placing “regulatory capture” on greed and hubris.
And like the oligarchs of both Greece and Rome, they usually got a way with murder all in the name of “maintaining order.” They loved order, but laws that placed limits on unbridled and brutal wealth thievery? Not so much.
Jesus responds to their trap in two ways. First, he forces them to admit that they don’t know what they are talking about. They don’t want to understand the question, so of course, they won’t understand the answer (Lk 20:1-8).
We must pay close attention here as to why the Jewish leaders did not want to answer (Luke 20:6). Jesus and his forerunner John could readily be seen as demagogues quite capable of inciting a riotous mob, just like in the parable! The Jewish elites in collaboration with Rome certainly wanted to get rid of their rival, but discretely. Have the Romans expose of him, while their clothes are not stained with blood. Messy.
Second, he proceeds to define “authority” for them. All the gospels constantly press the issue of authority or legitimacy to rule. For ruling oligarchs, legitimacy was based on tradition (we’ve always been here), their wealth (God has blessed the super rich in order to trickle down some scraps to you), and the sword (who else can muster and finance armies to protect you and to police you).
The gospels present the counter-legitimacy. The weak, dispossessed, marginalized, hungry, poor, diseased, and hopeless (tenants of the vineyard?) are finding liberty! Jesus is ever vigilant and adamant: “My dad has my back on this.”
The interpretive context
With all this in mind, I turn to the parable. How would this parable have been understood in Jesus’ day, and in turn, how should we understand it?
Let me say a few more things about parables as a reminder. Everyone thought they were enigmatic. Certainly the disciples had a hard time understanding their significance. The variation of this one parable within the synoptic gospels demonstrate the struggle Christian communities had grasping its “correct” meaning and significance. Indeed, the meaning and significance could very well go in different directions or have multiple meaning depending on where one places one’s self in the story.
More than likely, Jesus tossed out these parables in even simpler forms and in a variety of contexts. The same could be said for the hearing of these parables within the early Christian communities. We can surmise that lengthier versions of the parables are later and attempts to address problematic interpretations that have arisen.
I put Lukes version in this category because he changes the direct audience to “the people” along with their aghast response: “Heaven forbid.”
In this regard, the parable is two-sided. It is a mirror on one side and a window on the other. And it warns us to be careful where we place ourselves in the story and who we identify with in it.
For the Roman and Jewish oligarchs it is a mirror thrust into their face. You think you are the man. They knew full well the Isaiah prophecy was directed at the same kind of keepers of the vineyard of old as them, sowing violence and corruption, “joining house to house and adding field to field “until there is room for no one but you (and slaves). Bad, wild, moldy, sour grapes. “You’ll know them by their fruit,” Jesus says. They cheer on the ruthlessness of “the man” as having every right to unjustly and disproportionately reap what he did not sow and to use ruthless violence to prove it. They nod their head affirmatively when Jesus answers for them the question: what will the owner of the vineyard do to them? They inwardly cheer the pronouncement: he will come and destroy those tenants and give it others.
The IED for these listeners comes in the shock that they aligned themselves with the wrong players in the story. They thought they were like “the man.” Then the IED explodes: You are the tenants!
In this way, Jesus has put a different spin on Isaiah’s parable. Isaiah implies that the rulers of the people were middle managers responsible for the right and just cultivation of the land and use of labor.
For “the people” the parable is a window, but with an equally explosive surprise. In no way do they identify with “the man.” He is despicable and worthy of ill treatment. They have no choice but to place themselves as the debt-peons, slavishly working for someone else’s profit. “The man’s” “share of the produce” was wildly disproportionate in ancient Judean terms.
They knew they were the tenants, and if they never acted on such rebellion, they certainly dreamed of it. And this is why in Luke’s gospel the people respond in horror to Jesus’ answer to the question of what the owner of the vineyard should do? They had already experienced over and over again the exacting ruthlessness of Roman retribution, and this is why the gasp: “Heaven forbid” (Luke 20:17). They probably had seen too much of that already, but they also understood. If you rebel and it doesn’t succeed, “the man” will crucify you.
All were the tenants. All treated “the man’s” slaves poorly and killed the man’s son. Lest we forget, there were no protesting voices when Pilate asked, “what shall I do with Jesus?”
We must suspend our identification of God with “the man” primarily because Jesus does. We should also ignore the question and the answer as to what the man should do because Jesus does. The primary question is not what will the owner of the vineyard do? Or what should he do?
Jesus places the emphasis in a surprising (IED) place. What about the son whom the tenants killed. Jesus provides a key to the dilemma of the parable by deflection. He answers by a question of scriptural exegesis. “What does this verse in the Psalms mean?” The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Ps 118:22-23). More over, he switches metaphors from a landlord and his tenants to builders of a structure. In this metaphor, no boss is mentioned, just the laborers and their choices. God is outside the metaphor. The metaphor only mentions a mysterious reversal of a very bad choice by some of the builders.
Jesus directs all listeners, enemies and supporters alike, to a different and more critical question. What about the cast out son? What about the rejected stone?
Jesus strongly implies without overtly stating a rephrasing of the question. It is not: when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do about the tenants? Rather, it is: what will he do about his murdered son?
Jesus answers the question for them: Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls (Luke 20:18).
In Jesus’ interpretation of the metaphor, there is a 2-way street between action and recipients of action. For sure, the stone is an impediment to all. Some of the builders trip and fall over the stone and are broken. Perhaps it is at that moment, that they realize that the stone really would make a great cornerstone. For other builders, the stone falls on them and crushes them. Perhaps because they ignored it. Some fall on the stone. For others, the stone falls on them. Either way, no one escapes unaffected by the stone or the death of the son.
We should try and answer the question Jesus puts to us. What does Psalm 118:22-23 mean? The psalm relates the nearly ubiquitous ancient story of rulers, especially those calling for reforms, coming to power. David is a prime example. They end up as outlaws, desperados, militants, rejected and persecuted by ruling elites who desperately cling to control. They often face assassination. They are never executed because of their popularity. Michael Hudson’s rehearsal of ancient Greece and Rome reminds of a seemingly endless cycle of this. The discouraging aspect of his book is that the ruling oligarchs always end up back on top.
At least for a season, however, the very persecution and rejection lays the foundation for a “regime change.” Their trial becomes the pivotal base for a new building, a new enterprise, a new and more just lease on the vineyard.
Ultimately, from Jesus point of view, the issue isn’t what happens to the tenants or the builders, but what happens to the son or the stone? And here Jesus provides a foretaste of the resurrection. The building metaphor answers what the vineyard metaphor leaves hanging. The rejected stone will be exalted. And what about the murdered son? Yes, what about him?
As long as I’m being too lengthy already in this discussion of the parable, I might as well minimally address what is for many throughout Christian history the clear and obvious understanding of the parable. For them, Jesus and the Church will replace Israel as God’s appointed managers of the vineyard. Certainly, the Romans’ destruction of the temple and crushing of the Jewish rebellion does seem to weigh in here. Some Jewish oligarchs in Jerusalem were annihilated, and for some Christian interpreters, they justly deserved it. But most escaped relatively unscathed and still collaborating with Rome for profit (the standard move by most oligarchs everywhere).
Several things are problematic with this interpretation:
First, the Rabbinic Judaism that emerged from that destruction could just as easily claim to be the new tenants of the vineyard.
Second, it places God in the same light as brutal Roman imperialism. If one accepts the premise that I present on the parable, this seems entirely unlikely. It doesn’t fit the context, let alone our theology of a God of love or of justice.
Finally, Jesus is known to deflect away from who deserves destruction (from God) and points instead to what God is doing in Jesus. When asked if certain Jews who suffered horrifying deaths (perhaps because they were Roman resisters) were “worse sinners,” Jesus redirects the question by renouncing some tier system of sin and blame (Lk 13:1ff). If you are looking for blame, look to yourself, but more importantly repent—change your thinking. Also, and in the same way as in the parable examined here, Jesus simply states that bad things will happen (the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem) as a consequence of non-repentance. As mysteriously prophetic as this may appear, Jesus was just stating the obvious. If you seek to unseat the Roman system through violence, then violence you will have. More importantly, you will not prevail.
We should also take note that the inquiry of Jesus’ audience in Luke 13 sounds remarkably similar to the nodding elite heads agreeing with “he will come and destroy those tenants”in our parable. It is a ubiquitous ploy of oligarchs. Focus blame and destruction on others, and indiscreetly escape through the back door with wealth intact.
I turn now back to the priest’s questions:
When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will that mean for us?
I have steered away from a direct correspondence of God with the owner of the vineyard. I think the question needs redirection because Jesus points it that way. Instead of when the owner of vineyard comes, it is: does this cycle of violent seizure, debt slavery, and horrific retribution ever stop? Jesus strongly pushes the question in a different direction, one that neither Jesus’ contemporaries or we were even considering—What about the murdered son? Whatever action “the man” was going to take was not toward the tenants, but toward his son.
And just as important or maybe even more important, how might our anticipation of the coming of the owner of the vineyard influence and shape who we are as disciples of Jesus and how we live?
Another way to put this is one usually asked around Pascha: what does the resurrection of Jesus mean for us, really mean for us? How does that influence and shape how we live?