Rejecting the Wicked Grapes of Antisemitism
This Sunday's Gospel text, Matthew 21:33-46, is one of those texts that lends itself to some really bad interpretation. Certainly, all Scripture can be interpreted poorly. But bad interpretations of this text, in particular, can lead to some ugly theology and attitudes about the Jews. As Christians, in general - and as Lutherans, in particular - we must guard against any creeping antisemitism in our theology and Biblical interpretation.
Sunday’s parable describes tenants of a vineyard behaving badly. They do not give the fruit to the landowner. Instead, on two different occasions they kill messengers sent by the landowner to collect the harvest. When the landowner sends his son as an emissary, they kill him, too. Jesus asks the elders and chief priests what they imagine will happen to the tenants when the owner of the vineyard comes. “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready” (Matthew 22:41). In making the allegory explicit, Jesus responds to the chief priests and elders, saying “God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit” (Matthew 22:43).
We would do well to remember that Jesus was a Jew, speaking to Jews, within an established religious tradition that often warned about the people’s unfaithfulness to God’s promises. As an example of that tradition the first reading for this Sunday is from Isaiah 5, an allegory about a vineyard that failed to produce good fruit.
The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!
Earlier in the tradition, Moses reminds the Israelites several times, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that the LORD God redeemed you” (see Deuteronomy 24:18, 22, among others). The Shema – Deuteronomy 6:4 – is surrounded by instructions on how to maintain the memory of God’s deliverance.
It is human nature to forget God’s faithfulness and to neglect the promise. The ancient Jews knew this. We know this, too. This is why we remind ourselves constantly of God’s goodness through liturgy, Scripture, and practices of faith that center us in God’s promises.
The danger comes when Christians read this parable presuming to be the new, faithful tenants of God’s vineyard, replacing the Jews. This replacement theology is called “supersessionism,” the belief that the covenant with the Jewish people has been superseded and displaced by a covenant with Christians. Read through a supersessionist lens, the old tenants – the Jews – are punished by God, while we Christians claim our stake as the rightful, faithful tenants of the vineyard.
This replacement interpretation gets even more dangerous when we consider that early in the church’s history Christianity became disconnected from its Jewish roots and identified increasingly with the culture and history of Gentiles. Thus, a theology that replaces Jews with Christians as God’s favored people is also layered with ethic divisions and even geopolitical concerns (see The Crusades), creating a particularly sinister division between Jews and (overwhelmingly gentile) Christians that is exacerbated by the power dynamics of a Christian empire and a stateless, oft-scapegoated Jewish people.
When an article of Christian faith is built on the suffering of the Jewish people, we quickly arrive at a spot where antisemitic words, attitudes, policies, and violence is not only permissible but demanded by the justice of God’s judgment. This is evil masquerading as righteousness, and has exposed itself in particularly heinous ways in our own Lutheran tradition (see Martin Luther’s treatise “On the Jews and their Lies”).
A faithful reading of Matthew 21:33-46 allows – and even requires – Christians to see ourselves as the wicked tenants who fail to produce the fruit, and who reject those sent by the landlord to collect. Such a reading of this passage repeats in our ears the call to repent, to renew our ways, and to seek the goodness of God for ourselves and for the world around us. Because, ultimately, this is the purpose of a vineyard: to provide food and drink that nourish people with life-giving sustenance.
As we reflect on this Gospel, let us give thanks for those whose fruit sustains and nurtures our bodies. And, let us consider our call to bear fruit in obedience to God for the sake of this world that God so loves.
[Image by Melany Rochester on Unsplash, found at Five Common Anti-Semitic Christian Teachings]