TWENTYSEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR / (Cycle A )
(Mt 21: 33-43)
- Today’s Gospel is the second of three parables told by Saint Matthew to bring home to us the confrontation, which had developed between Jesus and the “chief priests and elders of the people”. This opposition, this growing tension, had been there right throughout Jesus’ public ministry. All we have to do is to pick up any Gospel and see how much the preaching and behaviour of Jesus differed from that of the accepted religious teaching and practice of his time. He was a free-lance preacher and the chief priests and elders belonged to the establishment and they were not at all happy with the way he was attracting the people by his preaching and his teaching. Every now and then disputes arose with the religious and civil authorities because his preaching and way of doing things did not fit in with the way they saw things. And now, on his final visit to Jerusalem, matters are coming to a head.
Jesus does nothing to alleviate, soften, his differences with the chief priests and the elders. He makes no attempt to, as it were, ‘cool things down’. In fact, according to Saint Matthew’s account of what happened, he seems to provoke them further and thus deepen the divisions that had already developed between them. At any rate we get the distinct impression that no love was lost between them.
The three parables which we find together in Matthew’s Gospel are all stories told by Jesus in the presence of the chief priests and the elders to point out to them how wrong they were in the way they thought and acted as the appointed representatives of God, the official intermediaries between God and his people. To be told this in public must have been a cause of great shame and embarrassment for them. And, of course, to be ‘put-down’, discredited in this way, publicly, was to undermine their authority and their power. No wonder they set out to get rid of Jesus. And, in ways, it is hard to blame them for their reaction. After all they were the ones who were responsible for the temple worship and practice. And the prophets had repeated time and time again that God had promised to be present in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. What right had this upstart preacher to come and tell them how they ought to behave, they who were the guardians of the house of God. We should not be too harsh in our judgment of the adversaries of Jesus. Their reaction to Jesus and his way of life was a “gut reaction” rather than a deliberate and reasoned policy. They just did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Last week we reflected on the first of these three parables and next week will listen to the third one. Today’s story is about the owner of a vineyard and the tenants to whom he leased his property.
- Again today, like last Sunday, the story is simple and straight-forward. It tells of a man who had a vineyard – apparently quite a valuable piece of property which was well looked after and cultivated. Saint Matthew describes it in this way – “There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.” We had the description of a similar vineyard in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah; in fact it is even more detailed and graphic – “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes ….” At any rate, the vineyard of the Gospel, a vineyard of exceptional quality and value, was let out to tenants for their use with the agreement that at the time of the harvest they would pay whatever rent was due. When the time came to collect the rent, the landowner sent his servants to the tenants but the tenants refused to pay what was due. They refused to honour their agreement, and indeed they abused and mistreated the servants, even killing one of them – “and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” Eventually the landlord sent his son to collect the rent but the tenants killed him with the intention of taking illegal possession of the vineyard – “This is the heir; come let us kill him and have his inheritance. And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
At that point of the story, Jesus puts this question to the chief priests and the elders of the people – “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And, of course, there was only one way they could answer. – “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.”
And then comes the terrible condemnation of the leaders by Jesus, turning their own judgment on themselves. By their answer they had condemned themselves – “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” Once again we can imagine how shocked and offended they must have been to be treated in this way by one, who in their eyes, was an unauthorized preacher with no authority.
- There would have been absolutely no doubt in the minds of the chief priests and the elders of the people about what Jesus was saying to them. The imagery used in the parable – that of the owner and the vineyard – was common, very familiar, and widely used in the Scriptures as an image of God and his people. You remember the first reading again where Isaiah says – “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel …” So, then, in the parable:
– God is the owner of the vineyard
– The vineyard is his people, his kingdom
– The tenants are the appointed leaders of the people
– The servants are the prophets
– The Son is Jesus himself
The chief priest and the elders of the people to whom Jesus was speaking were obviously the tenants who were supposed to look after and tend the people of God placed in their care. But the parable shows them up as unscrupulous, concerned only about their own status and ready to take any means to secure their position and indeed appropriate to themselves what really does not belong to them – the vineyard, God’s people. In other words they put themselves in the place of God.
The condemnation of Jesus, then, was that they had in fact usurped the place of God with respect to his people; that they had in fact taken possession of his people. Therefore they were no longer representing God, but rather representing themselves and their own interests. They had, by their conduct, disqualified themselves and were no longer the real leaders of God’s people. And they are rejected for having failed in their duty of being responsible to God. It was indeed a terrible indictment when you think of it. The whole religious establishment, which had served the people of Israel for centuries, was discredited and no longer had any authority to represent God.
- We might be tempted to leave our reflection on today’s Gospel at that point and be grateful that the care of God’s kingdom has now been given over to the Christian community; that we are now the new tenants of God’s vineyard. But we should be quite clear that we too, having now become the new tenants of God’s kingdom, could just as easily make the same mistake as the chief priests and the elders who were condemned by Jesus for their behaviour. We too can tend to push God aside and want to take hold of his kingdom to do with it as we might wish. We too can want to organize our lives, our church, our community as if everything depended on us and belonged to us. We too can want to take hold of and give a shape to our own lives as if they were completely and exclusively ours to do with as we like. And this is always a real danger because we all want to be ones who will make the decisions. The temptation is ever present that we want to have absolute control over our own lives, and indeed very often over the lives of others.
In our own times, those who propose religious fundamentalism as the answer to the problems of the Church and the World are also tenants who would appropriate to themselves the Lord’s vineyard. They too, like the chief priests and the elders whom Jesus condemned, would put themselves in the place of God and dictate what it is that God wishes or does not wish for his people.
We have to be forever reminding ourselves that this life is a gift, a precious gift, like the well-tended vineyard of the parable that has been given to us, that the presence of God and especially the presence of his Son in our midst and in the Church is altogether a free gift to which we have no right. The gift belongs to God and I am but a steward and a tenant in my journey through life.
- “Zeal for renewal may be used in the same way. The busier we are about liturgical matters, the lay apostolate, ecumenism, the biblical revival, reform of the Church structures and all the rest, the more incessant our activity in the cause of aggiornamento, the less need there is to confront the reality of God in our own lives and hearts. A fear prevents us from admitting the emptiness we should find there.
We must face that emptiness, because it is the presence of God calling us to Himself. God is truly a hidden God. He comes to us in the cover of darkness. It is when we have uncovered the void within ourselves, opened up the empty space or our need for God, that we can encounter God in sheer faith. He refuses confusion with our concepts and images, with our words and plans. He will not subject his action to our glib ordering. He tolerates patiently our attempts to arrange His work for Him. But he waits for those prepared at long last to meet him in the silent and humbling darkness of faith and to surrender themselves unreservedly to his love.”
(Charles Davis, A Hidden God, America, 291, 1966)