Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 5, 2014
We are back in the vineyard again this week, immersed in another of Matthew’s complex Gospel parables. Jesus told these parables in answer to the question: “What is the kingdom of God like?” His parables are short narratives that combine realistic details from first-century Palestinian life in little villages with details that are foreign to the ways that things happen in daily life.
Today’s Gospel parable is often called the parable of the wicked tenants. Like last week’s parable of the two sons and next week’s parable of the royal wedding feast (22:1-14), today’s story is clearly one of judgment at the centre of Jesus’ threefold response to the religious leaders who are putting his authority to the test (21:23-27).
In the Old Testament, “vineyard” or “vine” is often used as a metaphor for God’s people. The vineyard figures frequently in Jesus’ parables, setting the stage for the Kingdom of God to take root and the drama of salvation to unfold. The work in the vineyard is hard labour; patience is essential, and wages are unpredictable as we saw in a previous Gospel parable (Mathew 20:1-16). The vineyard can also be a dangerous place to work. Scuffles between workers can erupt (Mark 9:33), and violence may erupt as we see in today’s story (Matthew 21:33-43).
A story of violence and want
The juxtaposition of peace and plenty with violence and want in today’s parable is part of what makes this Gospel story so powerful. A closer look helps us understand the harsh reality of people’s lives in Jesus’ day.
The estate of the landlord would have housed between 50 and 70 people, mostly slaves or servants. The most trusted servants would have had significant responsibilities. The landlord’s servants did not hesitate to “lord it over” those in his charge (21:35). In early fall, when the harvest was ready, the landlord sent out a succession of his workers to collect the rent. The landlord would not go out himself to collect the rent. On the contrary, landlords protected themselves, their families, and their considerable possessions in fortified tower-residences.
The people of Jesus’ day were also all too familiar with the violence the story portrays. When the landlord finally sent his son to collect the rent, the tenants said: “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours” (21:38). What remains very odd is that the tenants would repeatedly mistreat and even kill the one sent to them without any reprisal by the vineyard owner. In interpreting parables, the glimpse into the kingdom of God often comes to us through the strange details that are not the way things are in life around us, then or now.
The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God
Today’s parable is not just an allegory of hot-headed and greedy servants. Those who listened to this parable from Jesus also perceived something underlying the story. Earlier they had asked Jesus about the authority he was claiming for himself. They knew he was telling the story for a reason, and this upset them. The first hearers would have recognized some familiar themes under the surface.
The vineyard imagery invites us to look at the first reading from Isaiah 5, where the vineyard symbolizes Israel. Since the vineyard has been planted by God, it represents the gift, grace, and love of God. Yet the vineyard also demands the labour of the farmer that enables it to produce grapes that yield wine. Thus it symbolizes the human response: personal effort and the fruit of good deeds.
If the vineyard refers to Israel, then the tenant farmers represent Israel’s religious leaders, who despite their professed loyalty to Israel’s law (Torah), refuse to give God his due by acknowledging and accepting his mighty presence in the life and mission of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.
When successive “prophets” are sent to the “tenants” – and killed – they heard Jesus remind them of the habit leaders had of ignoring many of the warnings the prophets had previously announced. The religious leaders were being criticized for ignoring their own God-sent messengers. This of course would lead to the reaction we see in Matthew 21:45-46: “Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.”
Matthew has transformed this allegorical parable into a rich account of salvation history. The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God. The slaves sent to collect the produce are the prophets sent to Israel. The son whom the tenants throw out of the vineyard and kill is Jesus, who died outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.
The fact that the vineyard is to be taken from the wicked tenants and given to others (21:41) does not refer to Israel but to the kingdom of God (21:43). It is not suggested that God will remove Israel’s present leadership and provide it with more faithful leaders. Rather, “the kingdom of God” will be taken “from you” and given to a nation that will produce the fruits of the kingdom. The “you” addressed consists not only of the opponents mentioned in the context but of all who follow their leadership in rejecting John and Jesus. The nation to whom the kingdom will be transferred is the Church. The reach of the parable extends to include the Resurrection when Jesus directs his hearers (21:42) to the prophecy about the “stone that was rejected” that has become the “corner stone” (Psalm 118:22-23), while the final comment (21:43) reinforces the sense of the Church as inheritor of the kingdom removed from the original tenants.
We must always avoid an anti-Semitic reading of this parable. The first way is to hear it as a piece of prophetic invective addressed by a Jew to fellow Jews. We must focus attention not so much on what the passage has to say explicitly about Jewish leaders as to what it implies about Christians. The “others” to whom the vineyard is given over in verses 41 are accountable to the owner. They too are charged with the heavy responsibility of producing the fruits of the kingdom (21:43).
The vineyard will not be destroyed
In his homily at the Mass to mark the opening of the XII Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” on October 5, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke beautifully of today’s parable:
In the end, the owner of the vineyard makes a final attempt: he sends his own son, convinced that at least they will listen to him. Instead the opposite happens: the labourers in the vineyard murder him precisely because he is the landowner’s son, that is, his heir, convinced that this will enable them to take possession of the vineyard more easily. We are therefore witnessing a leap in quality with regard to the accusation of the violation of social justice as it emerges from Isaiah’s canticle. Here we clearly see that contempt for the master’s order becomes contempt for the master: it is not mere disobedience to a divine precept, it is a true and proper rejection of God: the mystery of the Cross appears.
Yet there is a promise in Jesus’ words: the vineyard will not be destroyed. While the unfaithful labourers abandon their destiny, the owner of the vineyard does not lose interest in his vineyard and entrusts it to other faithful servants. This means that, although in certain regions faith is dwindling to the point of dying out, there will always be other peoples ready to accept it. For this very reason, while Jesus cites Psalm 118:117, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 42), he gives the assurance that his death will not mean God’s defeat. After being killed, he will not remain in the tomb, on the contrary, precisely what seems to be a total defeat will mark the beginning of a definitive victory. His painful Passion and death on the Cross will be followed by the glory of his Resurrection. The vineyard, therefore, will continue to produce grapes and will be rented by the owner of the vineyard: “to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Mt 21:41).
The vineyard is the house of Israel
The parable of the wicked tenants reminds us once again that we cannot control God’s continuous merciful outreach to others. It compels us to look at our lives, our attitudes, and actions, in light of whether they are an embrace or rejection of Jesus’ saving message. Rather than putting the focus on what the story says about Jewish leaders, we must ask: what does it say about us Christians? What is my vision of the kingdom of God? How am I producing a harvest for God’s kingdom, in my private and in our communal lives? What does the parable say to me about my own troubled relationships with family, friends, and colleagues? What does the story teach me about my inability to forgive others and forgive myself? Yes, the wicked tenants in today’s Gospel do indeed try God’s patience. But I do as well! How do I respond to the boundless mercy and goodness that God offers me each day?