Learning to Ask Questions

By Dorothea Foerster

Last year, when looking at a sixteenth-century German oil painting, picturing a scene in the New Testament, I wanted to know exactly what it referred to. The left side of the painting shows Jesus teaching, surrounded by his followers and the scribes. In the background is a vineyard and landscape with a meandering river, while on the right side of the foreground are images of various punishments. In the New Testament, does Jesus really recommend punishments, as this painting seems to suggest?

It appears that the painting refers to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, which can be found three times in the New Testament: Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, and Luke 20:9-19. Within each of these three gospels, this confrontational dialogue is narrated during Holy Week and foreshadows what will happen on Good Friday.

Before the parable is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark, there is a reference to the fig tree. On the way back to Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry— hungry for what? Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “‘May you never bear fruit again!’” (Matthew 21:19). In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus essentially says: If you have faith, you bear fruit. Might he also be indicating that those who do not have faith “will not bear fruit again”?

What follows next in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark is the well-known quotation about faith that moves mountains. I particularly like the version of Mark 11:23 (in my translation): “Amen, I say to you: who says to this mountain: ‘Raise yourself and throw yourself into the sea,’ and is not doubting in his heart, but has faith that what he says will occur, then it will happen.” Whereas in Luke 19:46, we hear about the cleansing of the temple: “My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Then, while teaching in the temple during Holy Week, Jesus is asked by the chief priests and scribes: “By what authority do you act?” (Mark 11:28) He turns back to the scribes, asking: “John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!” (Mark 11:30); in Matthew 21:25 and Luke 20:4 are similar questions. And now, in response, follows the parable of the wicked tenants:

There was a man, the master of a house. He planted a vineyard and surrounded it with a fence and dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he handed it over to the vine-growers and went away to another country. When the grape season came, he sent his servants to the wine-growers to receive his fruit. (Matthew 21:33-34).

But the tenants maltreat the servants: “they beat one, killed another and stoned the third.” (Matthew 21:35) Then the lord of the vineyard sends his own son, thinking that they will respect him, and the tenants kill the son too—foretelling what will happen on Good Friday.

Turning to his challengers, Jesus asks: “Now when the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” The chief priests, scribes, and elders say in response to Jesus: The lord of the vineyard “will repay evil with evil and destroy them. And the vineyard he will give to other vine-growers, who will deliver to him the fruits of the vineyard at harvest time.” (Matthew 21:40-41). This judgment follows the teaching of the Old Testament. In Mark 12:9 and Luke 20:16, it is just stated that the lord of the vineyard will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.

Now Jesus turns to the Old Testament and quotes from Psalm 118, referring to the stone that was rejected but later used as keystone, he concludes: “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. And whoever runs against this stone will be dashed to pieces; and he on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matthew 21:43-44).

So, did Jesus recommend punishments? No; rather, he depicts consequences when no fruit is delivered. Another situation, where the New Testament is quite specific about consequences, is described in Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:29, and Luke 12:10, in the warning not to speak against the Holy Spirit. Could the lack of producing and sharing fruit be considered a sin against the Holy Spirit?

The image of bearing fruit appears in the Gospel of John too, also during Holy Week, but reduced to its quintessence: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). And then, in John 15:16, Jesus says: “… go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”

There are three things that this bit of research, triggered by the painting, taught me: I really loved researching and studying the Gospels. I wanted to learn more about the content of the Gospels, so I decided I want to go back to the Seminary of the Christian Community as soon as possible. And now, whenever I read about “bearing fruit” in the New Testament or elsewhere, I try to connect it with the image of “faith and finding the Kingdom of God.”

Picture: Phillip Uffenbach, ca. 1590, private collection