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 used as a justification of Jewish persecution for thousands of years. Some have interpreted it as a blanket condemnation of the Jews by Jesus, concluding that God would nullify the covenant he made Workers Tend to Vineyard with them and replace them with the Gentile Christian church. A careful reading of the parable in light of its first-century Jewish context can yield important insights.

This parable alludes 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” were the ones charged to take care of it, which would be the priestly leadership. The people, of course, were the vineyard itself. (1)

One little-known detail that is critical for understanding this parable is that in the hundred years preceding Jesus’ ministry, the priestly leadership, particularly the “house of Annas” had become extremely corrupt. This mafia-like dynasty used its wealth to buy off the Romans, who allowed them control of the lucrative money-changing tables at the Temple, which were called “booths of Annas.” They charged inflated prices for sacrificial animals, extorted money, and stole funds intended to support priests who had no other income. (2) A poem from that period describes the plight of the people under their abuse:

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)

These details reveal that the Jewish priesthood was not representative of the people — their corruption robbed people of the ability to worship God in the Temple that he established. It was their hatred for Jesus, not the people’s, that brought his death. Matthew 20:16 says that the priests desired to seize him immediately but could not, because of Jesus’ popularity with the people. The same group of corrupt priestly leaders were responsible for Jesus’ trial and execution, and in the book of Acts, were the main persecutors of the early church. (Acts 4:1-3, 5:17-18)

Even in the details surrounding the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, we see that Jesus was speaking to the leadership rather than the Jewish people as a whole. The teachers and priests in his audience who heard it were incensed because they knew that he had aimed it against them specifically.

Though the sin of mankind is to blame for Jesus’ death, the Jewish nation is not deserving of pointed condemnation. 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.

To explore this topic more, see the En-Gedi article “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week.”

(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.”

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

Photo: Henry Zbyszynski