In speaking to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus tells the whole story of salvation in one parable. Did they recognize themselves in the story?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mt 21:33-43)
In this portion of the Gospel, Jesus has been speaking directly to “the chief priests and elders of the people” because they had questioned His authority to teach in the Temple (see Mt 21:23). In the second of three parables, He tells the story of a vineyard. Whenever we see mention of a vineyard in the Gospels, we must remember that the Old Testament repeatedly refers to Israel as God’s vineyard. Our Old Testament readings today will make that abundantly clear.
In this parable, a landowner (who represents God) planted a vineyard with great care, making sure it was well-protected so that it could produce good fruit to make good wine (righteousness and covenant faithfulness). He “leased it to tenants” (the priests and religious leaders in Israel); they were to oversee the fruitfulness of the vineyard. The owner sent his servants (the prophets) to “obtain his produce,” but the tenants thought the vineyard actually belonged to them, so they beat and even killed these representatives of the owner. Finally, the owner decided to send his own son (Jesus) to the vineyard: “They will respect my son.” However, the tenants were threatened by the son’s appearance, because they knew that ultimately, the vineyard would belong to him instead of them. So, “they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” In this, Jesus is describing in detail what the religious leaders would soon do to Him. He was seized, beaten, and killed outside the city walls of Jerusalem (read Jn 19:17, 20; Heb 13:12).
Then comes the pivotal question: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” His hearers have no trouble understanding what should happen to the wicked tenants: “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.” They easily recognize that the tenants violated the trust of the landowner and brutally wronged him by killing his son. Justice requires a radical punishment and a fresh start for the owner and his vineyard.
Exactly. Now that they have described what they know should happen in the story, Jesus tells them that the story is true. First, He quotes Scripture to them, with a piercing question: “Did you never read the Scriptures?” These were the religious leaders of Jerusalem—of course they had read the Scriptures! They considered themselves to be experts in the Scriptures, able to teach everyone else. Jesus asks the question because He knows they have missed something in all their reading. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Jesus quotes Ps 118 to describe what would be His own rejection by the religious leaders to whom He spoke. They did not recognize themselves in the parable. They did not understand that in rejecting Him and trying to silence Him, they were rejecting the landowner’s own son. They did not see that their hypocrisy and power-mongering were not the “good fruit” the owner was seeking from his vineyard. Jesus tells them: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” This is first a reference to the joy with which Gentiles would one day receive the Gospel, even as the Jewish leaders were rejecting it. It is also a veiled reference to the punishment administered to Judah for this rejection in 70 A.D., when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and leveled the Temple, never to be rebuilt. In the New Covenant, Jesus is the new Temple, and we are living stones in that Temple. The “vineyard” now is the Church, God’s Garden on earth.
From their own lips, the enemies of Jesus pronounced God’s just judgment on themselves. Their fate reminds us not to make the mistake of hearing a parable and thinking it is meant for someone else.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I confess that I often listen to Your parables with someone else in mind. Help me see myself in them.
First Reading (Read Is 5:1-7)
When we read this passage from Isaiah, we understand that when Jesus told His parable of the vineyard, He was drawing directly from the Scriptures’ description of God’s relationship with Israel. Isaiah was warning the people that if they continued to refuse to live the covenant they had made with God, their treasured vineyard, the Promised Land, would be lost. Yet what is most noteworthy about this passage is how deeply personal it is. It allows us to see that the covenant was like a marriage, rooted in God’s loving care for His people.
First, we should note that in the first few verses, the word “friend” is much better translated as “beloved.” Isaiah describes how God created His vineyard, choosing a “fertile hillside” and planting “choicest vines.” In this, He was a true “husband,” the word that means “one who cultivates.” However, when He looked for “a crop of grapes,” or the righteousness produced by covenant-keeping, He found only “wild grapes,” not fit for making sweet wine. Israel was full of wickedness; instead of flowing with wine, it was drunk on “bloodshed” and violence.
Then begins a plaintive section in which God Himself addresses His people: “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I had not done?” It is heartbreaking to hear God ask this question, isn’t it? This kind of lamentation is generally sung in the liturgies of Good Friday. It is the most painful question God could put to us, because it leaves us fully exposed in our rebellion against Him. Even the religious elites to whom Jesus addresses His parable recognize the terrible weight of guilt upon those who show disrespect and ingratitude to the owner of such a lovely vineyard.
In Isaiah’s time, the punishment on God’s “cherished plant” would eventually be exile and the loss of their land. The Promised Land became a wasteland for about seventy years, until God allowed a remnant to return and rebuild it—this time in humility and gratitude.
In Jesus’ time, the punishment for the rejection of God’s own Son in His vineyard was to be another conquest (by the Romans in 70 A.D.), but the vineyard would never again belong only to the Jews. This beloved vineyard, the Church, has been bearing fruit among all peoples and nations for two thousand years. The good wine is now most bountiful in God’s “cherished plant.”
Possible Response: Heavenly Father, keeping my covenant with You isn’t a matter of keeping the rules but of cherishing Your love. Help me never forget this.
Psalm (Read Ps 80:9, 12-16, 19-20)
The psalmist identifies God’s vineyard (“The vineyard of the LORD is the house of Israel”) and describes for us the devastation that came to the people when they lost their beloved land. It became a feeding place for wild animals (“the boar from the forest lays it waste”) and even for those who had never lived there or worked its fields (“every passer-by plucks its fruit”). The psalmist asks a painful “why” of God over all this desolation. However, we can see that he actually knows the reason: Israel had “withdrawn” from God. The psalmist cries out to the LORD for restoration: “Take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted.” He knows that this loving care will call forth something from the people as well: “Give us new life, and we will call upon Your Name.” This is all God has ever wanted from His people. The psalmist declares in a prophetic way how the covenant will someday be made new: “If Your face shines upon us, then we shall be saved.” Indeed, St. Paul tells us that in Jesus this prophecy was fulfilled: “For it is the God Who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). God made His face to shine on us in the Incarnation.
Blessed be that lovely Face!
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Phil. 4:6-9)
If we are wondering what the “good fruit” of God’s vineyard is supposed to be, St. Paul helps us understand it. In God’s vineyard, people “have no anxiety at all.” Instead of worrying they pray “with thanksgiving, [making] their requests known to God.” In this, they can be utterly confident of God’s loving care; the fruit of this confidence is “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” In God’s vineyard, His people love truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, graciousness, the excellent and praiseworthy; they “think about these things.” What a magnificent description of people whose lives have been transformed by seeing God in the face of Christ Jesus. In God’s vineyard, His people are obedient to the pattern of living handed down by the apostles (“keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me”). In God’s vineyard, He dwells in peace with His people.
Is there any better place to be on earth than in God’s vineyard, the Church?
Possible Response: Heavenly Father, Your vineyard is so lovely. Thank You for making it possible for me to dwell in it.