Friday, November 2, 2012

A Cracked Cornerstone

Now in the Jerusalem area, Jesus was causing quite a stir, even with His own Disciples. They were amazed at the power Jesus displayed when He killed a fig tree for not having any fruit on it. Sometime afterward, the Chief Priests, elders, and Teachers of the Law questioned Jesus about His authority to teach in the Temple courtyard, but Jesus deflected them by asking them what was the inspiration behind John the Baptist's baptism (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8).

All three of those accounts continue on with Jesus chastising these leaders with a parable, which will be the subject of the study below, but Matthew inserts one more parable prior to that. The parable involved two sons, one who eventually did not do what his father had asked, and one eventually who did. Jesus then accused these leaders of not doing God's will and following John the Baptist's ways of repentance and righteousness (Matthew 21:28-32).

A Cracked Cornerstone
There are many prophesies directly referenced in the Gospels. Yet typically, if you go back and read the prophesy, you will find some aspects that do not exactly match the intent of the Gospel author. Take the prophesy referenced in the Parable of the Tenants, for example. In this study, we will see some oddities in the parable itself, see how the referenced prophesy is not quite right, and trace the elements of story evolution across the Gospels.

The Parable of the Tenants is found in Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, and Luke 20:9-19, but starting with Mark's version allows you to see how Matthew and Luke adjusted the story according to their own unique idioms. Mark's version goes like this:
Jesus told a parable about a man who rented his vineyard to tenants. The man sent many servants over some time to collect some fruit from the tenants, but each time the tenants would not yield any fruit, and furthermore they would mistreat these servants, including by beating and killing them. The vineyard owner finally decided to send his son, thinking that the tenants would respect him, but the tenants also killed the son. So the vineyard owner will soon kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others. (My paraphrase)

[Jesus then said] "Haven't you read this scripture:
'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?" (NIV, Mark 12:10-11)

The Chief Priests, the Teachers of the Law, and the elders discerned that Jesus had spoken this parable against them, and so they sought to kill Jesus, but were afraid of how the crowd would then likely react against them. (My paraphrase)
Let us quickly note some oddities and intricacies of this parable. First, we should question just what kind of person this vineyard owner is. Why? Well, because he did not seek justice. When the tenants refused to yield the fruit, he did not bring a lawsuit. When the tenants beat, and even killed some of his servants, he just sent more servants instead of seeking justice for his servants (Mark 12:3-5). Given the tenants' record of killing servants, he sends his son to collect dues as opposed to sending law enforcement to arrest them (Mark 12:6). And (surprise!), the tenants killed the son too (Mark 12:7-8). At this point in time, we should judge the vineyard owner as an idiot who foolishly sent servants, and even his own son, to almost assured slaughter.

Of course, in this parable, the vineyard owner represents God, the servants represent all of the various prophets that God had sent the Jews, and the owner's son is none other than Jesus. (By the way, the special prominence of the son in this parable supports the idea that Jesus was a literal son of God, as opposed to a chosen, figurative son of God as some more cult-like denominations would render Jesus.)

The verses of Scripture that Jesus quoted are Psalm 118:22-23. Psalm 118 has several verses which seem as though they could be prophetic of Jesus, such as Psalm 118:14, Psalm 118:17, and Psalm 118:21, such that any believer would consider it undeniable applicable. However, that is just a case of confirmation bias, because there is evidence to the contrary that must be ignored to take such a position:
  • Psalm 118:2 is a reference to the traditional Aaronic Priesthood as opposed to Jesus' order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:20).
  • Psalm 118:7 is a reference to triumph in a battle.
  • In that battle, the speaker was surrounded by hostile nations and almost faltered in battle, but with God's help he conquered the enemies. (Psalm 118:10-13)
  • In Psalm 118:17-18, the speaker was chastened by God, but not killed, and will live on to personally proclaim what God has done.
  • In Psalm 118:21, the speaker thanks God for being his salvation, which would be awkward for Jesus to say given that Jesus was the means of Salvation and He would not need to be Saved.
  • Psalm 118:27 is a reference to making a sacrifice of thanks on the altar of the Temple.
  • Finally, the Psalm is written in past tense, describing what had already happened long before Jesus.

The quoted verses in the Psalm are a bit ambiguous, for sure, but I suspect that the "cornerstone" being referred to is meant to represent God Himself. However, it is not likely referring to Jesus based on the context.

At the close of the parable, we see that the Chief Priests, the Teachers of the Law and the elders had to work a little bit to figure out that this parable was spoken against them.

Now, what about Matthew's version? Matthew only tweaked some wording here and there, leaving the parable mostly the same. However, Matthew, being a bit of an aggregator, did insert additional content into the story. The additions began with the scathing scorn Jesus gave the Chief Priests and the elders after the Parable of the Two Sons, which was inserted just prior to the Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:28-32). Then in Matthew 21:43, we find more unique-to-Matthew direct scorn aimed at the Chief Priests and the elders, given as an interpretation of the closing of the Parable of the Tenants. Despite Matthew's version having this blatantly directed verbal assault, he clumsily leaves in Mark's statement of how the Chief Priests and Pharisees "knew" that Jesus had been talking about them with His parables, as if there was still a need for discernment on their part (Matthew 21:45). (Also note how clumsily Matthew switched Jesus' target from Chief Priests and elders {Matthew 21:23} to Chief Priests and Pharisees {Matthew 21:45}).

OK, how about Luke? As noted several times before, Luke was more of an editor than Matthew. He knew how to redact stories that were a bit too controversial, like the fig tree that Jesus cursed. And if a story just had one or two rough spots in it? Luke would polish it up, like what we find here. You know how bad it looked when the vineyard owner kept sending servants to be slaughtered by the tenants, and even did so with his own son? Well, Luke noticed that too. So in his version, none of the servants were killed (Luke 20:10-12). That way it would seem like more of a surprise that the tenants had killed the owner's son, and the owner would not look like such an idiot. Of course, that broke the link that Mark was trying to make with the parable; that the servants represent all of the various prophets that God had sent through time, but at least it is a better story. :-)

One final Gospel-construction note: We saw in a previous study how it appeared that Matthew and Luke had copied from a different version of Mark than what we have today in the Bible by comparing Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, and Luke 9:41. There, Mark was missing the phrase "and perverse generation," but Matthew and Luke both had it. Here, in the Parable of the Tenants, an entire verse is present in Matthew 21:44 and Luke 20:18 that Mark does not have. This further suggests that Matthew and Luke were building from a different version of Mark.


  1. "At this point in time, we should judge the vineyard owner as an idiot who foolishly sent servants, and even his own son, to almost assured slaughter."

    Exactly! Thank you for pointing that out. To me that screams to me ...literature and bad literature at that, not god breathed words.

    That reminds me that I want to write a blog post about people who are tortured for not denying god.

  2. Thanks Lorena!

    By the way, I am glad to see you writing again. :-) I liked your last post a lot about the village raising the child. I willl look forward to your post!

  3. I really like the way you are able to compare the different versions of the stories and connect them.

    I noticed something strange with these stories when I was reading through luke, it is quite possible that I am just misreading something, but I was curious about your take on it.

    I was comparing the matthew story and the Luke, story, and part of it seems to be opposite. Both of those verses linked pick up right after the son is killed.

    In the Matthew story, Jesus is speaking up to v.40, he asks the crowd what should be done. In v.41 the crowd responds that the tenants should be killed. In v.42 Jesus responds "have you never read the scripture", implying that what they said was wrong.

    But then in the Luke verse, Jesus declares that the father will kill the tenants and the crowd responds "surely not!"

    In both versions Jesus goes on to talk about people being crushed, but I must say I found the Matthew passage confusing. If I had to guess, I would say that there are copy errors in the Matthew version.

  4. Thanks Hausdorff!

    That "Surely not!", or "May this never be!" (as NIV renders it) response the people give in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants is a bit tricky to decipher, for sure. I do not think that it is an objection to the vineyard owner's course discipline, but rather a rejection of the circumstance. In other words, they were saying: "God forbid a situation like this ever happens." Jesus asking them about the quoted scripture is then equivalent to Him saying: "Oh, not only will it happen, but God told you all a long ago that it would happen. Ah snap!" :-)

    So I think that the crowd is in agreement with one another between Matthew and Luke... at least in as much agreement as they can be between the different versions.

    There may very well be some scribal errors in Matthew here.