Tenants and guests

Gospel of Thomas 65 (Lambdin):

He said, ‘There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, “Perhaps he did not recognize them.” He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, “Perhaps they will show respect to my son.” Because the tenants knew that it was he who was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.’

Perhaps the most startling thing about this story is the abrupt ending, or rather lack of the ending we find in other versions of the same parable: in Mark 12:9, Matthew 21:40-41, and Luke 20:15-16, we are assured that the wicked tenants will receive their just punishment. All three synoptic gospels place the story in a context which invites a specific reading: the vineyard owner represents God, the tenants represent the religious establishment, and of course Jesus is the son of God, soon to be killed by the powers that be. But such an interpretation is not really at home in Thomas, where Jesus is not said to be God’s only son. The omission of the ending in Thomas could be written off as accidental or careless, but this seems unlikely, considering that the very next saying in Thomas is the same one that follows up this parable in the other three Gospels:

Jesus said, ‘Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone.’

Thomas 66 (Lambdin)

To make sense of Thomas 65, then, we need a different context and reading from what we find in the other Gospels. The problem is that if we think of the vineyard’s owner as a human (rather than an inscrutable God), then he appears to be a rather slow learner, not to mention ineffectual (as Davies 2002 points out). But perhaps this fallibility is itself the point of the parable; perhaps we can learn from the owner’s error, which was to absent himself from production of the fruits of the vineyard.

Suppose you think of the vineyard as your everyday practice, which should be guided by the meaning of scripture (which Thomas from the beginning challenges you to find). According to Thomas 2, the authentic seeker eventually finds himself ‘king over the All.’ This happens when you realize that this world is your world (Chapter 4) – as Thomas Traherne put it,

You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.

— (The First Century, 29)

Later on, though, you may become complacent or absent-minded, and turn over your guidance system to habits or projects uninformed by actual experience or living semiosis. Then your habits are not really your own any more; they are like tenants of your body, and of course the ego is the worst tenant of them all. In this context, Thomas 65 would be warning you that habits are greedy and addictive, so if you turn your life over to them, you will have a hard time getting it back. These ghosts do not realize that they are ‘heirs of the whole world’ and are therefore jealous of the ‘children of the living Father’ (Thomas 3), who do realize it. So they are grimly (even lethally) determined to hold on to whatever part of your life they can get a grip on. Put your life on automatic pilot, turn it over to your ego-self, and you may lose your wholeness, just as the son in the parable lost his life. Punishing the wicked tenants won’t redeem the situation, either; the only solution is to quit acting like an absentee landlord – inhabit the living body, live the time.

The preceding parable in Thomas, Saying 64 (which also has its parallels in the synoptic Gospels), could be taken as a warning that business – being occupied all the time with buying and selling, profit and loss, or even with social obligations – is no substitute for living the time:

Jesus said, ‘A person was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant to invite the guests.
The servant went to the first and said to that one, “My master invites you.”
That person said, “Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I must go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.”
The servant went to another and said to that one, “My master has invited you.”
That person said to the servant, “I have just bought a house and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.”
The servant went to another and said to that one, “My master invites you.” He said to him, “My friend is to be married and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.”
The servant went to another and said to that one, “My master invites you.”
That person said to the servant, “I have bought an estate and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.”
The servant returned and said to his master, “The people whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.”
The master said to his servant, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”
Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my father.’

Thomas 64 (Meyer)

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