A Timely Reminder
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 21: 33-45
27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB links to all three readings
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
"Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,
another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
'They will respect my son.'
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
'This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.'
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?"
They answered him,
"He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times."
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
Therefore, I say to you,
the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit."
This Sunday is third in a row featuring a metaphorical setting in a vineyard. For those looking for the significance of a “vineyard” in the Messianic discourse, we need look no further than Sunday’s first reading. I have a link here for Isaiah 5 in its entirety, in which a vineyard is prepared for maximum growth of select grapes. However, the harvest is more than disappointing, and the land owner (Isaiah 5:4) laments, “Why, when I waited for the crop of grapes, did it yield rotten grapes?” He goes on to pass a terrible judgment on the land itself: “Now, I will let you know what I am going to do to my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!”
For Isaiah, “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, the people of Judah, his cherished plant.” Thus, the wrath of God is directed at the land of Israel and its people.” The historical Isaiah preached between 742 and 701 B.C., a time when the Assyrians were constant threats to Israel’s existence. In fact, Isaiah’s death may have coincided with a siege of Jerusalem itself in 701. Isaiah’s parable in Chapter 5 makes eminent sense in that the forces attacking Israel could destroy the land and its inhabitants.
In Matthew’s text, Jesus begins again by directing his words to the religious establishment, i.e., the chief priests and elders of the people. For the third time he sets off with a landowner and a farm or vineyard. In this third instance Matthew details the laborious investment of time and labor. No stone is unturned here; R.T. France comments that a landowner was generally quite rich, since the first good harvest would not come to fruition for at least four years. (p. 809; see home page)
When the time comes for the first harvest, the master sent servants or slaves to obtain his produce. The tenants of this estate are more cruel and violent than those we encountered two weeks ago, the ones who grumbled about the pay scale. The representatives here are successively beaten, stoned, and killed. Finally, the tenants kill the master’s son, with the clear intention of seizing the enterprise altogether. This is outlandish; as France puts it, “the story has moved away from everyday reality, and as often happens in parables…the intended symbolism has apparently invaded the story line: the murder of the son represents the forthcoming execution of Jesus.” (p. 809)
The mistreatment of the master’s son and his murder are acts of rebellion and murder; it may be that Matthew—more than Luke and Mark, who report the same parable with slightly less violence—wants to emphasize the gravity of the love God has poured out upon his vineyard Israel and its people and the utter disregard for that love demonstrated in rebellion, acts, of violence, and most of all, the slaughter of the master’s own flesh and blood. When pressed for their opinions on this scenario, the chief priests, not surprisingly, can only answer that “those wretched men” would be put to “a wretched death.” Interestingly, the same priests add a conclusion quite different from Isaiah 5, where the vineyard is destroyed. The priests state that the vineyard will be leased to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper time.
In other words, the vineyard will continue as a going concern, but under new management. Implied here is that Israel will continue under new management as well. Not for nothing did Jesus appoint twelve apostles as the pillars of the new twelve tribes of Israel. In his own commentary on the parable, Jesus states that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Having killed the son, the old tenants of Israel’s vineyard will be replaced by that rejected son and his followers. Again, this Gospel must be read in the light of the struggles existing between Jews who embraced Jesus and those who rejected him as Messiah, roughly around 80 A.D. and after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Jesus himself detours from Isaiah 5 and states to his clerical listeners that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit." One way or another, God’s will cannot be thwarted. It will do the Christian hearers of this parable no good if they receive this text with smugness. Israel lost its place in the vineyard because it failed to produce and it failed to acknowledge its true place in the pecking order of God’s plan. Complacency and arrogance plagued our fathers in faith; there are no guarantees that our Christian failures in the vineyard will not bring us, too, to a “wretched death.” Sunday’s parable is not simply a tale of another peoples’ sin; it is a challenge to examine our individual and corporate custodianship of the kingdom with this fall harvest.
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