October 3, 2017
The Gospel text has truly shaped Christian attitudes and is one of the texts that has been the basis for a scheme of thought that played a dominant role in Christian theology and devotion for a long period of time. It could be briefly formulated this way: Israel, by murdering the Son of God, lost its election. Its role as people of God and instrument of salvation history was thrown away. God chose a new people, namely the Church. This new people have replaced the old.
Gerhard Lohfink in Does God Need the Church? (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999, pp. 246-247), asks if this is a correct interpretation of Matthew. Who are the addressees of “therefore I tell you?” From whom is the reign of God to be taken away? As Lohfink points out, the text is as precise as possible, for in Matthew the discourses of Jesus that include this parable are directed exclusively to the leaders of the people. Looking at this passage in the larger context, beginning 10 verses earlier, we are told that Jesus was addressing the chief priests and the elders of the people who had approached him. This parable is addressed to them. The saying that the reign of God will be taken away from “you” is not directed to the people of Jerusalem, and still less to Israel as a whole, but to Jesus’ opponents, the religious authorities in Jerusalem. So that this may be clearer to all hearers of the gospel the text says, immediately after these words about God’s reign being taken away: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds because they regarded him as a prophet.”
As Lohfink notes: “It could not be clearer. It is the leading authorities who are threatened with having the reign of God taken away from them, not the people. While they are leaders of the people, they do not represent the whole of Israel” (247). Again, thinking in terms of the wider context, immediately before this text (Mat 21:31), they had been told: “the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Of course, these tax collectors and prostitutes are Jews!
So, a proper interpretation of this text, in its context, will serve as a critique of any thought that God has turned God’s back on Israel, replacing it with the Church. Indeed, Paul’s image of the olive tree in Romans 11, included the hope that “the natural branches will be grafted back into their own olive tree.”