Fruitless, part 1

In the previous post, for Palm Sunday, we noted that the crowd’s joyous shout of “Hosanna!” as Jesus entered Jerusalem echoed the language of Psalm 118:25.  And interestingly enough, the same psalm is found on the lips of Jesus shortly thereafter.

Jesus is in the temple, debating with the chief priests and Pharisees.  He tells a parable (cf. Matt 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19), describing a situation that would have been well-understood in first-century Palestine.

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Photo by Nat Arnett

A landowner decides to plant a vineyard, probably as an investment.  He takes a suitable plot of land and prepares it properly, building a fence and watchtower, digging a winepress.  And when all is ready, he moves out of the area and rents the vineyard to tenant farmers who will work it and give him his share of the produce each year at harvest-time.  But when the landowner sends servants at the proper time to collect the fruit, the tenants beat or kill them. The landowner sends more servants, with the same result.

Then the landowner decides to send his own son.  In Mark’s gospel, sending the son is the last resort; there are no servants left to send.  And both Mark and Luke note that the son is much loved by the father.  But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all note that the landowner expects the son to be treated far more respectfully.

Unfortunately, the tenants reason that it would be best to kill the son, the landowner’s heir.  They may be thinking about an ancient law similar to squatter’s rights: if they can get the landowner to turn his back on the vineyard with they continue to occupy the land, it will eventually become theirs by default. After all, why pay rent to an absentee landlord, when you can own the land outright?  And if they get rid of the son — if there were no heir — their claim to the land would be even stronger.

The gospel of Mark, therefore, says that they killed the son and threw him out of the vineyard.  But Matthew and Luke say that they threw him out and then killed him.  Does it make a difference?

It does — if you remember that by Jewish law, a dead body was unclean.  Kill the son in the vineyard, and the produce becomes unclean and unmarketable.  But throw him out first?  Ah, clearly: that’s the best business decision.

How is it possible to be so blind, so hypocritical — to murder and steal while trying to keep one’s hands clean?

Oh, those evil Pharisees, we might think; they just don’t get it.

But do we?  More on that in the next post.