Today’s lectionary reading is the parable which has often been termed the parable of the Wicked Tenants. It is a difficult parable to understand, full of violence and hatred.
Quite simply the story is of a person who bought land, fenced it, built a winepress and a watchtower. Thus, the owner created a safe environment for the workers. The vineyard was leased to tenants and the owner left, possibly to continue his business exploits elsewhere.
I would imagine that is quite a normal way of conducting business. It is a model that happens all the time in big business. Owners have multiple investments, they put managers in to run them and scoop up the profits as a return on their investments. Perhaps, one could critique this model of business and talk about enormous profits made while workers toil for a pittance. It is certainly worth considering when this parable is explored.
I have, in the past, enjoyed a book by Peter Mayle, it is autobiographical about a year spent in Provence, France. The style is a little bit too patriarchal for my taste nevertheless it is an interesting read. In one of the chapters Mayle talks about his venture into wine-making, although like the owner in the parable today he does little hands-on work. His property in Provence has six acres of vines. In the book, he describes the system used in the region which is known as metayage. The owner pays all the capital costs, of new stock, fertilizer, etc. While the farmer does the actual work, planting, spraying, pruning, harvesting. When the grapes are converted to wine the farmer takes two-thirds of the profits while the owner takes the remaining third. This system came to mind as I read this parable.
When reading parables, I resist the temptation to assign roles to the characters. I believe that is always always a mistake. I think one should read them simply as a story told to make a point. If one assigns roles then the characters often exhibit characteristics that are unfavourable. In this parable, the landowner has sometimes been equated to God. If that reasoning is followed then in this parable God is portrayed as vengeful and one who will cause suffering. (“. . . will put the wretches to a miserable death” 21:41).
Is that an image of God that is acceptable? It is certainly an Old Testament image, but the gospels and epistles have tended to change the interpretation of the image of God from a violent defender to a loving parent, a view which has increased in contemporary times. If God is put into the role of landowner then the violent image is affirmed.
In addition, roles would have to be assigned to the tenants, the servants and the son. The most common interpretation would see the tenants as the Jewish people (Sadducees, Pharisees), the servants as prophets and the son as Jesus. I would also want to reject this. I dislike the Anti-Semitic emphasis this would bring.
So, that leaves me with a story that has no winners, only losers. The landowner lost profits and a son. The servants and the son lost their lives. The tenants lost their vineyard (at, least that is hinted at, 21:41). No solution is given in the parable, there is no real ending.
I don’t have any great interpretation or profound thoughts. Much of it just leaves me feeling it is an unpleasant and disturbing parable.
Perhaps from the tenants point of view I could explore themes of possible exploitation, injustice, unrest which results in anger and violence in their desire for change. From the landowner’s view-point there could also be feelings of injustice, of being used, taken for granted, dishonoured, great loss and ultimately wanting to turn to violence.
I suspect each of us have shared several of those feelings at some point in our lives. At those times, hopefully, most of the time ,violence is not the result. Other ways of dealing with those feelings have been pursued.
Perhaps, this is simply a story to illustrate that a time of change is coming, reflecting the unrest in society. And change always comes from those who see injustice and are bold enough to stand against it. It has happened with every generation. Hopefully, as this story is read it will show the futility of trying to bring change through violence. With violence there are no winners, only losers.
Photo: Cornell Plantations, October 2016, (J.F-G)