A landlord planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented it out and went away. When harvest time approached, he sent his servants to collect his rent, in the form of fruit. But one by one they got beaten, stoned and killed by the peasants working the land. In the end, the landlord decided to send his son. “They will respect my son,” he reasoned. But the peasants working the land said to each other: “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” And they killed him, too.
“What will the owner do to those tenants?” Jesus asks.
The chief priests and elders reply: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Of course they say that. They are the Jewish elite—part of the land owning class.
God’s system of land distribution—whereby everybody had their own family land, and if you sold it to someone you got it back in the Year of Jubilee (49 years apart—see Leviticus 25)—had been long abandoned. Instead, the land of Galilee no longer belonged to Jewish families but to the Roman Empire, where land was divvied out to Roman officials and other elite people, and worked by peasants who no longer had land of their own. The best land fell into the hands of landbarons who lived in other parts of Palestine or even further away—and who came back at harvest time to collect their fruit. Perhaps as much as 40 or 50 percent. The elders and chief priests, though under Roman rule, were part of the elite who profited from this unjust system.
But Jesus has other ideas. “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit,” he says in Matthew’s version of the vineyard parable (21:43). Who in this story produced the fruit? It’s not the landlord, and it’s not the son. It’s the tenants. Interesting.
There is rich metaphor in this parable, but we shouldn’t limit its interpretation to something purely spiritual. Perhaps the "kingdom of God" has something to do with land justice, as well as a belief in Jesus as the “stone the builders rejected [which] has become the capstone,” as Jesus quotes (from Psalm 118). Perhaps belief in Jesus as the capstone of our faith has something to do with land and equity?
Jesus’ story sounds a lot like another, much older story, from the book of Isaiah, widely known as ‘The Song of the Vineyard’ (chapter 5):
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well. (verses 1-2a)
Sound familiar? Jesus begins His tale with one that is already familiar to the elders and priests—but gives it a new twist early on in the story. For instead of sticking around to see how his crop turns out, the landowner in Jesus’ parable leaves, renting it out to peasants to do the work.
In Isaiah’s song, the vines yield bad fruit, so the man destroys the vineyard. The analogy in that story is clear: “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel” (verse 7). Why does the Lord trample his vineyard?
… he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land. (verses 7b-8)
And so perhaps Jesus’ parable is a new take on Isaiah’s vineyard song. Perhaps He is saying, “This is what happens when there is injustice in your land; this is the result of systems where people ‘add house to house and join field to field.’" Jesus is not condoning the actions of the tenants—He is showing what happens when systems of injustice prevail.
Perhaps the parable makes more sense when you think of its modern equivalents, for people buying up land that is beyond their fair share is not something confined to the ancient world.
In Melbourne, Australia, where I live, finding affordable rental accommodation is next to impossible. Gone are the days when we all expected to have a home with a reasonable mortgage by the time we were 30. Now, people buy up "investment properties" and just sit on them, not renting them out but waiting until the land prices swell so they can re-sell and make a profit. This drives housing prices up. Land and housing ceases to be a human necessity, but becomes part of a money-making game. Plenty of people are on the streets because of it.
In the States, where the housing bubble has largely burst, people wooed into unsustainable mortgages default as their property value plummets or they find themselves in some kind of health crisis, where they don’t have the money or the insurance to pay for the hospital bills. Banks force them to clear out and "investors" scoop up people’s homes for a pittance, like vultures after an attack. Does Jesus’ parable have anything to teach us about this situation?
What does this parable have to say to the original occupiers of our land—the indigenous populations of Australia, USA, Canada, South Africa? Perhaps Zimbabwe provides an interesting parallel. Who are the indigenous people in this story?
And across the world, governments of developing countries, who are clamoring for foreign investment, sell the land of their people to agricultural corporations. This land has been held by families and has its security in generational history (not pieces of paper) and is the very source of livelihood and identity. The systems of injustice, in the face of profits, render the connection these people have with their land as meaningless. Fields are joined to fields and people go from being their own boss, to slaves of landlords who sit in offices in other parts of the world.
The chief priests and the Pharisees wanted to arrest and kill Jesus for telling that story. How would we react?
Andreana Reale is a writer, researcher and member of an intentional Christian community in Melbourne, Australia. She has a special interest in radical discipleship, sexuality, and aid and development.