Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Parable of the Tenants and “Ownership” of Israel/Palestine

Over summer I have been reading Matthew in Greek as part of reading the whole NT in its original language. I have found a number of interesting things. One is the implications of the parable of the tenants in Matt 21:33–46 for the status of the land of Israel. Of course, the land of Israel is an area of massive debate. Some Christians and Jews consider that land the possession of the Jews by divine prerogative based on God’s granting the land to the people of Abraham back in the Pentateuch. Others claim that that this is a false reading of what Jesus was all about, that the land does not figure prominently in the NT and that Jesus is the locus of God’s work; the “land” if there is any, is the world, and that the contemporary Jewish claims to divine prerogative are an anachronism at best. I have found myself pondering this again and again as I watch news items about Palestine/Israel; as I hear speakers from one side or the other; as I read on these issues. I find myself more and more coming down on the side of the latter view, that the Christian message of a Kingdom is not about a piece of dirt, a building like a temple or church, but about Christ, the completion of all God’s promises. Now God is not focused on one nation, but on all of humanity, and hope is found in the living temple, Jesus.

This was confirmed to me as I read the Parable of the Tenants. In the parable Jesus launches a direct attack on the leaders of Israel—they get that in the end, wanting to arrest him (v.45). In the parable he speaks of a master of a house, who plants a vineyard. In the Biblical tradition, this is definitely God the Father (cf. Isa 5). He sets it up well fencing it, setting up a winepress, and building a tower i.e. the loving care of God setting up the people in the land of Canaan. It then speaks of servants coming to the vineyard. The allegorical analogies are not tight, but likely these servants who came to get fruit refer to the prophets God raised up who preached that Israel would produce “fruit of righteousness” i.e. lives conformed to Torah (cf. Phil 1:11; Prov 11:30; Amos 6:12). Those in the possession of the vineyard are not the owners who have possession of the land as of some divine right, but are tenants. According to BDAG the tenant or geōrgos is a farmer, a vine-dresser, or a tenant farmer i.e. “one who does agricultural work on a contractual basis.” These are not owners of the vineyard, but are employed by the owner (God) to care for it. Verse 40 describes the owner as Lord (kyrios) of the vineyard, clearly alluding to Yahweh in the biblical story. Clearly, in beating, killing, and stoning the servants of the owner, the tenants violated their contract to look after the vineyard and produce fruit for its owner. This history of killing God’s prophets is clearly articulated in Matt 23:29–36 where Jesus rebukes the leaders of Israel for honoring the prophets in their death but in reality rejecting them and killing them.

The parable then anticipates the coming of the son of the owner, clearly alluding to Jesus (v.37), only for the tenants to state “this is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance” and then throwing him out of the vineyard and killing him (vv.36–39). Jesus is heir of all things, namely the world, including Israel. They were doing what all despotic false claimants to power do, seeking to take power by force—the antithesis of the revealed son of God who renounced harpagmos (violent force, robbery) to take his world (Phil 2:6). The parable ends horrifically with a warning that the owner of the vineyard will come and take vengeance on the tenants, killing them. This can anticipate the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem in a.d. 70 or the eschatological destruction of those who reject God and his word—likely both are in mind.

All this points to the people of Israel not being “owners” of any part of God’s world whether the land variously called Palestine or Israel, or any other part. Rather, they, like us all, were tenants of that particular piece of land. Due to their failure, their right of ownership was taken by God. It would seem to me then that it is a false claim to argue for privilege over the land in the modern conflicts. Indeed, it is a false claim for any people to claim ownership over any land. All land is owned by God, and we are his tenants. We are expected to produce fruit. I suspect all lands are subject to God’s visitation and the same expectation of bearing fruit. I suspect he will act when he finds that people are failing to do so. What do you think? 


Stephen K said...

Interesting thoughts Mark, this is the attitude I would take for sure. I don't really know the history of the area that well, but I understand that America (and certain international groups) have given Israel a lot of support over the years, and that an assumed biblical 'right' to the promised land has probably had a lot to do with this.

If anyone wants a fresh perspective, check out Bethlehem Bible College (http://www.bethbc.org/) and their ministries. We visited them, and thinking back I remember that worshiping with them in Arabic was such a weird experience. At first it felt wrong almost, I think because a lot of us in the west are very conditioned to a western Christianity ("Surely Arab's should do things like us after they find Christ?".. NO!) I shook those thoughts off soon enough though and learnt a lot about the bigness of the Church that day.

Back to the original issue.. I see the time is drawing near when enough Israelis and enough Palestinians will be ready to forgive each other and live together. Lord hasten that day!

Anonymous said...

Stephen I like what you say

Murray said...

Good to see some positive discussion on Israel Mark. Like alot of evangelical theology, Karl Barth is insightful here, particularly on Jesus the Jew, from the line of David, out of Israel,reminding us as you say about the covenant of God with his people, the people of the Old Testament; Israel, and how Jesus is the fulfillment of that covenant. So against any replacement theologians out there, let me quote uncle Karl, "The man who is ashamed of Israel is ashamed of Jesus Christ and therefore of his own existence". I guess the next challenge is if as KB says Christ is the expression of Gods election, then it stands that all people (Israel included) are elected 'in' Christ, whether they know it or not. Shalom, MJS

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