Last week we read verses 23 through 32. Jesus is teaching in the Temple when the chief priests and elders interrupt him to ask “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answers with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The chief priests and elders refuse to answer. They see the trap—if they answer heaven, Jesus will claim that same divine authority. If they say human, they will offend the crowd, who “all regard John as a prophet.” Jesus then tells two parables. The first parable is the one we talked about last week, the parable of a man with a vineyard and two sons. He asks each son to go and work in the vineyard for the day. One son says he will not go, but does. The other son says he will go, but does not. Jesus asks which son did the will of the father, and the chief priests and elders give the obvious and correct answer: the one who did the work, not the one who just said he would.
Jesus tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes, groups at the margins of political and social life, respectively, will enter the kingdom of heaven before the chief priests and elders, because “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Today’s text continues the conversation. We need to put it in that context because this passage has long been interpreted in troubling ways. There are thousands of sermons and theological texts about how today’s text is about Christians replacing Jews, saying that God revoked the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the promise reiterated and renewed with Moses, David, and Solomon. Sermons that, whether they realize it or not, proclaim that God’s unending, ever-faithful love is, in fact, fickle.
They get there through a misreading of the text, a misreading that pulls it out of the context. This parable does not stand alone but is part of Jesus’ larger conversation with the chief priests and elders on the subject of authority. They pull it out and assume that because they are reading it now, as Christians, and Jesus was talking to Jewish people at the time, that the people the Kingdom of God will be taken away from are Jews and the people the Kingdom of God will be given to are Christians.
The problem with that reading is that Jesus was not talking to a group of Christians and a group of Jews, it forgets that Jesus was talking to two groups of Jews. They assume that our gospel writer was writing to a community of Christians about a community of Jews, forgetting that Matthew’s gospel was most likely written within a community of Christ-followers, yes, but ones who still considered themselves Jewish a generation or two before the early Church would split away from Judaism and start to consider itself something distinct.
We can see the heavy Jewish influence within the early Church in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Look at our text for today. Paul writes that he is a perfect Jew, saying: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless,” but, even with all of his perfect righteousness in the eyes of the law, Paul writes that he does not have “righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Far from telling the mostly gentile community of Christ followers at Philippi that they are coming to replace the Jews in the eyes of God, Paul is writing that they are just as valued, that their non-Jewishness does not exclude them. Paul is not arguing that the divine promise is being taken from the Jews and given to Christians. Paul is arguing that the divine promise to the Jews remains in full effect and is being extended to Christians.
With this in mind, we can turn back to our gospel text and remember that this is a conversation involving Jesus and two groups of Jewish people, and, most importantly, it is a conversation about authority and the exercise of power. The wicked tenants are not the Jews, they are bad leaders. This entire conversation has been about failures of leadership. This is a parable about leaders who forgot who they worked for. Leaders who forgot that they were accountable to God, that ultimately, all authority belongs to God and all leaders, at best, wield authority for a short time and in limited ways.
Remember this, when you despair over another person’s authority. More importantly, remember this when you are in a position of authority over another. We are all accountable to God, and so whatever authority and power you might have, seek always to use it to grow and share your harvest.