The Stone Rejected: the people

As mentioned in a previous post, this expression ethnos might point to new people of God arising out of Jesus’ ministry and characterized by faith in him. We previously saw such a motif outlined in 8:11–12 and in the rabble of tax-collectors and prostitutes who “go ahead of” the chief priests and elders into the kingdom of God (vv. 31–32). The term ethnos, “nation,” calls for some such understanding, takes us beyond a change of leadership to a reconstruction of the people of God whom the current leaders have represented.

But on the other hand the singular ethnos does not carry the specific connotations of its articular plural, ta ethnē, “the Gentiles.” We may rightly conclude from 8:11–12 that this new “nation” will contain many Gentiles, but we saw also at that point that this is not to the exclusion of Jews as such but only of those whose lack of faith has debarred them from the kingdom of heaven. The vineyard, which is Israel, is not itself destroyed, but rather given a new lease of life, embodied now in a new “nation.” This “nation” is neither Israel nor the Gentiles, but a new entity, drawn from both, which is characterized not by ethnic origin but by faith in Jesus. It is as John will write in his gospel: new vines grafted onto the root.

Some see an echo of Dan 7:27: “Then the kingship and dominion and majesty of all the kingdoms under the heavens shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High, Whose kingship shall be an everlasting kingship, whom all dominions shall serve and obey.” If so, there is a poignant force in the transfer of this image to a different “people” which is not now simply Israel as Daniel had known it but which fulfills the role of the vineyard that is Israel.

What is lost by the current leadership and gained by the new “nation” is “the kingdom of God” represented by the personal authority of the landowner. The quotation in v. 42 has spoken directly of what “the Lord” has done in vindicating his Son. Israel, they have assumed, is where God rules, but they have rejected his will and so will find themselves outside his domain. At the same time, God will rule over a reconstituted “Israel” which acknowledges his sovereignty.

The old tenants lost their place because they failed to produce the required fruit, and it is the distinguishing mark of the new “nation” that it will produce it. The point is not developed here, but this qualification potentially carries a warning also to the new “nation”. If it in turn fails to produce the fruit, it cannot presume on its privileged position. The next parable will contain a sobering final scene to just that effect (22:11–13).

Reflection (from Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, 415)

Who is represented by the “you” from whom the kingdom is taken? Who is the “nation” to whom it is given? In the context, the addressees are clearly the chief priests and Pharisees… the Jewish leadership, not the people as a whole. Thus some scholars… have contended that Matthew here and elsewhere claims only that God will replace the present false leadership with faithful leaders. This requires understanding “nation” (ἔθνος ethnos, which is also the word for “Gentile”) in an unusual sense, a new group of leaders for Israel. The more natural way is to understand ethnos as “nation” or “people,” so that (as in 1 Pet 2:9) those to whom the kingdom is given are the renewed people of God, the church of Jews and Gentiles, who are called by God in place of unfaithful Israel. Many Christians throughout history have been too willing to understand the text this way, which has fueled the fires of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Many Christians today are hesitant to understand the text in any way that encourages a false understanding of supersessionism, that God has rejected Israel and replaced it with the church (Jewish and Gentile) as the people of God. Neither past mistakes nor present Christian sensitivity to Jewish-Christian relations should inhibit our allowing Matthew to mean whatever he meant. If he believed God had now rejected the Jews as the elect people of God and replaced them with the church composed of people called from all nations, including Jews, historical honesty should accept this. Historical exegesis may document this as Matthew’s view, even if his situational-conditioned perspective must not be allowed to dominate our own, which must be informed not only by this text but by other canonical perspectives as well, such as that of Paul, another Jew who had become a Christian and who saw a larger plan of God that embraced both Israel and church (Romans 9–11).

This text does not speak explicitly, however, of Israel’s being rejected, but of the “kingdom of God” being taken from “you”; in Matthew’s view, the saving activity of God continues in that community where taking up the “yoke of the kingdom” means adherence to the Torah as fulfilled in the teaching of Jesus (cf. 5:17–48; 28:20). Matthew, like the modern reader, here struggles with a difficult problem, one that he perhaps had as much difficulty in resolving with systematic clarity and consistency, as does his modern reader. Even if the objective meaning remains not entirely clear, contemporary readers can still legitimately ask whether they have set up other phony sovereignties in place of the one God, and thus might be addressed in the “you” from whom the kingdom is taken

Notes

Matthew 21:44 [The one who falls on this stone will be dashed to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.]: (brackets indicate it may be a later addition). This text, which does not occur in several important MSS (D, 33, it, sys) and is omitted in Eusebius’s quotations of this passage, was once thought to be a scribal gloss imported from Luke 20:18. More recent evaluation tends to consider it a part of the original text of Matthew. It corresponds to the stone imagery of v. 42 and is related to the image of the kingdom of God as a great stone, as in Dan 2:44. If the verse had been added secondarily, a more natural place would be following v. 42. If, however, it is original, its present location would show how important Matthew considered v. 43 to be, since he would have broken the connection between v. 42 and 44 by inserting it. If original, v. 44 functions to intensify the judgment expressed in the parable and in v. 43: the rock/kingdom/Son, who should be Savior and Lord, becomes a terrible threat to the one on whom it falls or who falls against it.

Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 412-15
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000)
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 807-18
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
  • Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2000)
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009)
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 275-79

Dictionaries

  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture: The New American Bible

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