The Curmudgeon


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Bad Theology

Text for today: Matthew 21 xxxiii-xli

Questioned by the Jewish elders about His authority to teach, Jesus relates a parable about a landowner who builds a vineyard and lets it to tenants, and then departs for a distant country. When the landowner sends his servants to collect the profits, the tenants beat and kill them. The landowner then sends his son, whom the tenants murder in hope of inheriting the vineyard. Jesus asks the Jewish elders what the landowner will do with the tenants, and the elders respond that he will destroy them and let out the vineyard to tenants who will pay what they owe.

The parable is highly precise in its allegory; being directed against Jesus' most treasured enemies, it was no doubt long and meticulous in the planning. The vineyard represents God's covenant with the Jews, with all its advantages to the chosen people; the landowner is God, the servants are the prophets whom the Jews have ignored or persecuted, and the son is Jesus. The profits from the vineyard represent the worship and obedience which the Jews owe to God, the tenants represent the enemies of Jesus, and the worthier tenants anticipated at the end are the adherents of His new blood-cult. The landowner's departure to a far country indicates the detachment of God from His creation and His consistent refusal to take responsibility for His servants, even when they are dutifully carrying out dangerous errands at His command.

When sending his son to remonstrate with the tenants, the landowner remarks that the tenants will surely respect him. Given the parable's exactitude in all other regards, this most peculiar statement can hardly be ignored. If God, like the landowner, has sent His Son in the genuine expectation that the Jewish leaders will heed His message rather than killing Him, then self-evidently God has made a mistake. If God genuinely did not know in advance that the Jewish leaders would reject and kill His Son, then the divine plan of crucifixion, resurrection and redemption was no more than a gamble, in which for all He cared the chief priests and Pharisees might have triumphed as easily as the true faith.

This of course is inadmissible. Assuming that the landowner represents the omniscient God, he must obviously have been aware of his tenants' character before he let them the vineyard; and he must also have foreseen what the tenants would do with his servants and his son. Nevertheless, the landowner retreats to a far country, leaves his precious vineyard entirely in the tenants' unworthy hands, and knowingly dispatches servants and son to their inexorable fate.

Why, then, does the landowner assert that the tenants will surely respect his son? As an allegory of God, the landowner must be aware, even as he makes the assertion, that the son will in fact be killed. Hence we must assume that the landowner's remark is a lie, intended perhaps to deceive the son and induce him to walk willingly into the trap. The landowner's omission of any mention of the resurrection can doubtless be put down to God's famously robust sense of humour.


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