Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner? Two Parables, Same Jesus, Same God

Jesus and the crowdsIf you’ve been reading this blog for more than a short amount of time you’ll know one of my consistent themes is the importance of a multi-layered, non-reductionistic view of the God of Israel. Indeed, I just wrote about that yesterday. The Scriptures don’t present a flat portrait of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so neither should we.

One of the most popular ways of flattening and distorting our picture of God is through the violent/peaceful, or loving/wrathful dichotomy. While in the past this was done in a more straight Old Testament v. New Testament split, contemporary proponents focus more on what Andrew Wilson has called the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. In a nutshell, you take the person of Jesus, or the peaceful teachings of Jesus as you understand them, and then propose to strain out whatever bits of the OT, or even the NT, contradict the loving portrait of God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus’ picture of a Fatherly, non-violent, ‘Abba’-God who loves his enemies to the death ought to be normative, relativizing all other portrayals (even those in Scripture) in light of its purity and ultimacy.

Let me be clear here: I’m all for Jesus being the ultimate revelation of God. I’m also all for reading the OT and the NT through the person and work of Christ. But we must pay attention to all of Jesus’ teachings, because more often than not they cut across our too-simple dichotomies and boxes. Take for instance his presentation of God in the parables.

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner?

Most of us are familiar with his teaching on the parable of the prodigal son, or rather, the two lost sons (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus here teaches us about the astounding, category-shattering grace of the Father for his lost sons. Both prodigals and Pharisaic humbuggers are invited to experience the humbling, forgiving, and astonishing love of God.

God truly is an ‘Abba’, a Father we can run to despite our worst sins, fears, failures, and shames, who take us up and embrace, covering us in the finest robes of his righteousness and restoring us to full rights as sons and daughters. God here holds no grudges, suffers shame in our place, and reveals his welcoming and inclusive heart. We need this parable. need this parable. It’s one that I cling to and teach joyfully to my students on a regular basis.

Now, if we’re going to understand the God of Jesus Christ through the parables he told, I think it’s worth examining another from the same Gospel, which doesn’t get quite the same airplay.

I’ll quote it in full here:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said,

“What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
(Luke 20:9-18)

Here Jesus tells a parable against the religious leaders of his day and in this too he speaks of God the Father. He teaches first of mercy and grace of God in the person of the vineyard owner who continually sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, to warn wayward Israel and especially the tenants who were supposed to be keeping watch over, but instead wickedly spurn his cautions and entreaties. Finally, as a great act of mercy and peacemaking, he sends his own Son, the heir to all that he has to plead with them and turn from their ways. But what do they do? They kill him in hopes of holding on to power.

What then does Jesus say the vineyard owner will do in response?

“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

God the great Vineyard Owner is also He whom Jesus came to reveal. God is merciful, long-suffering even to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies. And yet, he will not suffer them forever. If they will not repent, or seek the pardon made available in the Son, he will put a just end to their violence and injustice.

This is Regular Thing

What’s more, this angle on God isn’t a bizarre aberration in his teaching in the parables. Unlike the parable of the Prodigal sons, that of the Wicked Tenants is recounted in both Matthew (21:33-46) and Mark (12:1-12). We find Jesus’ parable of the Great Wedding Feast where those who don’t come, or come without the proper dress, are cast out into the darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). Or again, the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35). Or the parable of the faithless servant who abuses the other servants in his master’s absence. This one is actually pretty extreme, with Jesus declaring that upon his return, “The master will cut him in pieces and make him share the fate of the disobedient” (Luke 12:46).

I remember being shocked the summer I taught through them with my students as story after story he gives us both the grace, mercy, and a significant dose of the judgment of God. I guess I shouldn’t have, since that sounds just like the God of the Old Testament and the rest of the New.

Returning again to the parable of the Wicked Tenants, in itself it forms an argument against narrowly restricting our Jesus hermeneutic solely to the time of his first coming. There’s Dominical warrant for the idea that we must read his peaceful first coming alongside his more forceful Second Coming where he will, as the creed puts it, ‘judge the quick and the dead.’

From angle after angle, then, these overly-restrictive ‘Jesus’ hermeneutics end up falling against the stone of the Son and dashing themselves to pieces.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 thoughts on “Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner? Two Parables, Same Jesus, Same God

  1. I never thought of this until you discussed the parable of the wicked tennants as being about grace and judgment but doesn’t that basically make the parable a narrative version of God’s self description in Exodus (slow to anger…but not leaving the wicked unpunished)?

  2. Love this!! A great reminder to have a balanced view of God rather than to view Him either a passive, inconsistent God only, or an angry, vengeful God only. There are many other views of course, but these are just some of the extremes we see. Thanks for writing!

  3. I too would read the parable of the vineyard as Jesus’ announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem.

    Derek, though I would have many agreements on some other issues with some of those you’re alluding to who are projecting an image of Jesus as a complete pacifist, I have to agree with some of your concerns you’re expressing here. Though I don’t think mercy and wrath are opposite attributes we need to bring into balance either.
    I would argue in a little bit of alignment with the Orthodox perspective that God is love in essence and our position in relation to God changes our experience of that love.
    For example, a brothel owner in India and a young child who is a sex slave there might experience the expression of God’s essential love in different ways. The rescuing the child and the arrest/punishment of the brothel owner are part of the same motivating action of God but received in different ways based on their position in relation to that love.
    The child experiences it as mercy, but the brothel owner experiences it as judgement. If I remember correctly, AW Tozer makes a similar case in “Knowledge of the Holy”.
    Blessings!

  4. Exactly right, Derek. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the only place torture is explicitly mentioned in the Bible is in one of Jesus’ parables (the Unmerciful Servant), where the bad guy gets it:

    Matthew 18:34 New International Version (NIV)

    34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

  5. The key to understanding the differences in these parables is highlighted in James 3 where we are reminded that anyone who teaches will be judged with greater strictness. The parable of the prodigal sons reveals to us the true nature of God and that is pure love and mercy to any and all who will receive it. The parable of the wicked tenets does not require us to “add” anything to God’s nature. The tenets (teachers) are those given responsibility for the vineyard (church). The tenets are treated so strictly because they refused to listen to the owner’s son. This parable is actually a condemnation of teachers within the church who will not allow the all loving nature of the Son to be the ultimate and final revelation of the nature of God. The violence in the parable is not a revelation of the violence that is inherent within God’s nature but the violence that is done to the image of God by teachers within the church and the pain they will ultimately experience at the revelation that they have misled men and women by their teaching.

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