The Socio-Economic Subtext of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen
Published 14 Feb 2017
The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen is one of the more unique parables of the New Testament in the sense that it provides a discourse on the dichotomy between socio-economic classes and the relationship between “landowners” and the privileged class and their duty to God; or, more accurately, a defiance of the precepts of New Testament towards charity and the way which the privileged ignore those precepts.
In the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, the owner of a vineyard leaves the care of the vineyard to a group of Husbandmen while he is away from his property. When the vineyard bears fruit, the owner sends his servants to partake in the fruit that the selfish husbandmen rebuke and beat. The owner then sends his son to take the fruit and the Husbandmen slay them. This brings about the wrath of God who is angered at the selfishness of those who have stolen the vineyard and fruit for their own purposes as opposed to sharing it with those who are also rightfully entitled to the benefits of the vineyard.
The implication of this parable is that the servants sent by the lord of the vineyard were the Old Testament prophets and the Apostles who then carried their work forward. Indeed, the majority of the prophets and Apostles died by the hand of the ‘wicked husbandmen’. The fruit that the Lord expected from the Jewish people were faith and good works. The prophetic part of the parable — the punishment of the wicked husbandmen and the bestowal of the vineyard to others — came true 35 years after the Ascension of our Savior, when, in the time of the captain Titus, all of Palestine was devastated and the Jews were dispersed around the world. However, by the efforts of the apostles, the Kingdom of God was given over to other peoples. The compassion of the Son of God for the Jewish people, and His intention to save them from the approaching disaster is expressed in the parable of The Barren Fig Tree. (Mileant)
Throughout the entirety of the Parable, there is a significant volume of criticism directed towards the Jewish leaders of the time. It would seem that these Jewish leaders have decided to horde the whole of Israel and have denied the bounty of the land of God to those who should share in it as well.
From this, it is clear that the society in which the Jewish people of Jesus’ time lived was one where there was a clear hierarchy of in which certain religious leaders have placed themselves above the population. This is direct contradiction of the teachings of the New Testament as the material world and the Promised Land as heaven are provided for everyone and not to a specific chosen few. Many of the Jewish leaders of the time did not see this and started to see their role in society as a coveted position that needed to protected and a vehicle for personal power as opposed to one of faith and charity.
There is also another sphere to this ideology as the parable can also be viewed as a way in which the notion that the virtue of charity can be perverted as well when placed in the hands of the wrong people. In other words, while the land is meant to be inherited by the whole of the people, there are those who take this theme and twist it to a very negative way. This is as visible today as it was in the days of Christ.
Throughout the New Testament, there is a tremendous emphasis on the fact that charity can free the soul as it is the highest act of God’s love. Conversely, those who hold a desire for material greed will forever enslave their soul and prevent it from achieving God’s love. This does not mean, however, that mere acts of charity are going to save a person’s soul if the acts of charity are purely transparent and used to exploit class warfare as has been seen many times in recent history.
That men might hope by such high-handed lawlessness to obtain a title to a vineyard seems incredible to us who have always been familiar with the even-balanced justice of constitutional government; but in the East the looseness of governments, the selfish apathy and lack  of public spirit among the people, and the corrupt bribe-receiving habits of the judges makes our Lord’s picture even to this day, though rather exceptional, still true to life. At this point Jesus turns from history to prophecy. (McGarvey)
To a great degree, the socio-economic world of the New Testament is very similar to what exists in the modern world this very day. Much of the class struggle that exists in the New Testament perpetuates to this day, although in the modern world there has been discovered a means of integrating the less fortunate with the politics and policies of those who would exploit them.
To a significant degree, there are those in the world who feel the need and desire to control all resources for themselves and not share the fruits of the world with others. In the parable, there is a strong inference that the holy land of Israel is for all and not for the privileged few. However, the privileged will seek to control the resources and horde it for themselves.
The way in which this ties on to the surface in terms of the modern world is essentially an inference that there needs to be peace and charity among fellow men. On a certain level, it would seem that the parable is an endorsement of socialism/Marxism. However, that surface value explanation would be a very trite and inaccurate because more than just having a certain feeling and a certain theory, there needs to be an actual pragmatic and actual display of charity.
Some are insisting that Jesus Christ was a Socialist and that the early Church was established on Socialistic principles. Others declare that Socialism is merely the application of Christianity to industrial problems, and that it is the duty of a Christian minister to preach Socialism, and the supreme function of the Christian Church to introduce and support Socialism as the one cure for all existing social evils. As to Jesus Christ, it is impossible to identify Him with any social theory or political party. His teachings are of universal application and eternal validity; but they do not deal with the questions of political economy. (Erdman)
While Marxism and socialism (in theory), express a desire for sharing the wealth among the population, the actuality was that these systems were flawed. In communist China, for example, Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” was designed to help feed the peasant class, but it failed miserably and lead to the mass starvation of millions of people. Needless to say, this made Mao’s system of “sharing the wealth” incredibly unpopular with the population. How was this addressed by Mao?
China (along with the Soviet Union) moved further and further towards becoming military industrial complexes that subjugated their people at threat of re-education in work camps or outright purges and extermination, all done under the auspices of sharing the wealth and developing equality.
From this, there must be a lesson learned that in order for the Christian doctrine of sharing the wealth with the poor and the disadvantaged, there must be a selflessness and a desire to actual help those who are in a disadvantaged position. If one uses the promise of helping the poor strictly as a means of using them to gain power and them essentially abandoning them once power is achieved or, worse, turning guns on them and subjugating them once in control, is hardly the Christian ideal.
In that regard, for the act of charity to have any real meaning within the context of its biblical sense it must be a pure in heart action. If one gives to the poor simply because one can take a tax write off, one is helping the poor by donating money to the disadvantaged. It is, however, an absolutely transparent act. Warren Buffet was recently praised for his donation of billions of dollars for charitable causes, until it was revealed the entire thing was a scheme designed to avoid paying taxes. This is not the true Christian ideal that is present within the New Testament and the Parable of the Husbandmen.
In a way, the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen is a cautionary tale. It performs the two-fold purpose of warning people of the dangers of those leaders who will seek to steal from them if left unchecked and it also serves as a warning to those political and economic charlatans who will seek to promote their own goals and needs at the expense of those people for whom they have been entrusted to safe keep.
In this regard, the lessons taught in the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen were very important during the era in which they were written in the regard that they placed the flaws of the then current Jewish leadership into its proper context. Furthermore, it also provided a sense of enlightenment to those who were oppressed and to those who were being oppressed in the manner in which it clearly defined what was God’s will vs. what was a subversion of the will of God. While this parable was written many years ago, it still has a modern context in the form of disjointed and perverted authoritarian socialism and other manners in which wealth is horded under the guise of helping those whom it harms.
- Erdman, Charles. (1909) “The Church and Socialism.” Retrieved 4 February 2007.
- McGarvey, JW. (1914)”Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen” Retrieved 4 February 2007. http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/mcgarvey/four-fold-gospel/FFG108C.HTM
- Mileant. Alexander. (2001) “The Parables of the Gospel.” Retrieved 4 February 2007. http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/parables_e.htm#_Toc524512471