Today’s allegorical parable of the wicked tenants is the second in a series of three parables Jesus told in response to the religious and civil authorities who questioned the sources of his authority. Jesus always told parables that were based on the lives of his listeners. He chose materials that were well known to people who worked the land and fished the local waters. So the image of the vineyard was very familiar to them, as it is to those of us who live in or near Oregon wine country.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us another parable about a landowner and his vineyard. We know that when Jesus tells us a story about vineyards he’s not talking about grapes and farm work. He has something else in mind. Today’s parable emphasizes the importance of our bearing fruit in the vineyard where God has planted us.
Matthew leaves no doubt in his retelling the story. Building on Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Is. 5:1-7), the vineyard in the parable represents Israel; the landowner who planted the vineyard is God; and the tenants are the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The slaves, or servants, who are repeatedly sent to the vineyard only to be beaten, stoned or killed are the prophets. The son is Jesus, the one speaking to them, the one whose death is approaching, his proclamation of God’s kingdom rejected. Jesus will be thrown out of the vineyard and crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.
In this parable there is no doubt who the speaker is and who the tenants are. Even the religious leaders who want to see Jesus arrested and silenced get the message: “They realized that he was speaking about them.” The wicked tenants are not the nation Israel, but the people who have ruled Israel, including those who held authority in the time of Jesus. As leaders, they should be faithful stewards, but they have not borne good fruit. Jesus tells them that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to those who will bear fruit, the fruit that God desires, the fruits of the kingdom.
What fruit does God desire of us? The prophet Isaiah said, “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Is. 5:7). The fruit of the kingdom that Isaiah identifies and Jesus requires, what are they? Justice and righteousness, Isaiah replies. These are also among the “fruits of the kingdom” that Jesus proclaims.
Once again the religious leaders indict themselves. Just listen to the reaction of the leaders who first heard this parable when Jesus asked them what the owner of the vineyard would do: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
It’s tempting to read today’s Gospel as one more example of Jesus’ frustration and critique of the Jewish leadership. But that was past history when Matthew wrote his gospel around 85 A.D. The parable is really about those entrusted to care for the vineyard, and so includes us, who are now tenant caretakers. The new caretakers in the parable have both the privilege and the responsibility to “produce its fruits.”
So here we are, many generations later. Each of us is a caretaker, for we have been entrusted with some area of care in God’s vineyard. The area entrusted to us may seem insignificant, a small plot of land on the outskirts of the vineyard perhaps, but our baptism gives us the responsibility to produce fruit. We are given the responsibility of cultivating and producing fruits of the kingdom such as non-violence, peace, justice, joy, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Unlike the parable, the kingdom that Jesus offers us is not taken from us by a revengeful God. Jesus’ deeds are quite different. He doesn’t shrink from his sacrifice on the cross; he doesn’t return violence with vengeance; he doesn’t kick anyone out of the kingdom. Instead, the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst that our violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, promising to be with them always. That good news means that violence does not and will not have the last word.
Jesus, the chief cornerstone of our faith, is the final stone in that bridge that connects us with our God. Jesus Christ, the Son, shows us the way to God and God’s kingdom.
In unison with St. Paul, let our lives and our voices shout for all to hear, “this one thing we do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phl. 3:14). Amen.
Resources: Synthesis, 2008, 2017; Jude Siciliano, 2011, 2014; David Lose, 2017.