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

Truth Before and After Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus’ words that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor are paralleled elsewhere among the rabbis. About 100 years after Jesus, Rabbi Akiva commented about “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19) that “This is the great principle of the Torah.”1 Akiva could have heard it indirectly from Jesus, but in the book of Jubilees, from about 100 years before Jesus, it is commanded that we should “love each his neighbor, and to behave towards all men as one treats oneself” (Jub. 20:2).2 So here we also read the “love your neighbor” command along with the Golden Rule in a text that precedes Jesus’ words.

It can be challenging to faith to hear that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings are found in the culture both before and after him. We often imagine that the world was utterly black and devoid of sense before Jesus came to utter the great truths of God. In reality, we find that God had spent centuries training up a people to understand him, and in the final years before he came, he had prepared them especially to receive him.

Ark of the CovenantA few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people returned to their land and rebuilt their temple after being exiled for 70 years. Knowing that the exile was punishment for disobedience, they bore an earnest desire to observe God’s laws and study the Scriptures like never before.

Some returnees settled in places far from the Temple, and gathered in a new thing called a “synagogue.” There, instead of sacrifices, they emphasized study and memorization of the Scriptures, so that people became deeply literate in the Bible, learning much of it by heart. Even in their homeland the Jews endured terrible persecution by the Greeks and Romans for their piety. Together these things made Jesus’ audience long for God to send someone to save them from their suffering, and search the Scriptures to find God’s promises for the Messiah.

It was then, I think, that the Spirit started speaking to people through the Scriptures, pointing out great truths of God like “love your neighbor as yourself.” These ideas began to emerge from Jesus’ people even before he arrived. God loves all humanity and wants all to be saved, and he gives everyone some sense of truth. But God was preparing the Jewish people to understand Jesus’ profound words like no other time and place. Although some didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, hearing his words in light of the thought of his time is often tremendously helpful.

Jesus and Disciples
People mistakenly believe that none of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed in him. To the contrary, Acts 21:20 reports that “tens of thousands believed” in Jerusalem alone, an area that was more hostile to Jesus than elsewhere. Some scholars estimate that between 10 – 30% of all Jews may have believed in Jesus.3 If this is true, it’s possible that Paul’s struggle with “the unbelief of the Jews” was not that none believed, but that not all of them believed.

Instead of being threatened by hearing that similar ideas to Jesus’ came both before and after him, we can be encouraged that God was giving people insights that would help them see the One who was standing before them.

1 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

2 The book of Jubilees is from the apocrypha, non-canonical Jewish writings that date about 200 years before Jesus.

New Testament scholar David Bivin discusses the possibility that a sizable fraction of the Jewish population believed in Jesus at this link.

Photo: Vassil and Museum of Málaga