Gospel Reflection: The Tenants in the Vineyard
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘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.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
Exploring the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the last verse of Psalm 19 rings true: “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.” The definition of insolent: “showing a rude and arrogant lack of respect.” The tenants were responsible to the landowner for delivering the fruit of the harvest. Their response to the servants who are sent to collect the harvest is incredibly reckless and wicked- not just insolent. After the tenants torture and kill the first group of servants, why doesn't the owner throw the book at these murderous evil doers? Instead, the owner sends another group of servants to receive the harvest.
The owner’s persistence and patience with these wicked tenants is dumbfounding! The tenants get a second chance and they senselessly enact the same brutality to the second group of servants. Incredibly, the owner gives the wicked tenants a third chance! He sends his own son as the power of attorney to act on the father’s behalf. The tenants arrogantly and witlessly assume that they will somehow steal the son’s inheritance by grabbing him, throwing him out of the vineyard and killing him. In Matthew's setting, the last week of Jesus' life on earth, the parable is a clear reference to Jesus' passion and crucifixion. After being given three chances, the tenants meet the same end they themselves perpetrated on the servants and the son.
The parable is a story telling how the people of God have treated each other. It is told by Jesus and addressed to his own religious leaders, the same ones who will soon turn him over to the Roman authorities. The prophets of Israel and the church were harassed, maligned, and martyred, often by their own people. From Elijah to John the Baptizer to Stephen the Deacon, the words of Jesus teach us that faithfulness like that of the prophets has the final word: Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12
The tenants are supposed to steward the harvest! Instead, they let it rot. Daily, God asks us to use our gifts, one of which is to gather the fruit of God's vineyard, God's Kingdom. This is the realm where God is the owner, and where God reigns. God gives his people the gift of working the harvest.
In Matthew’s retelling, the story is also addressed to me, for I am one who often claims the name of Christian, saying “Lord, Lord,” but then refusing the invitations of God’s kingdom. At an early age, I learned the importance of measuring my life by the dictum: “early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This parable challenges me to measure my life by the teachings of Jesus Christ- and bearing the fruit of God's kingdom. By the hour, I can welcome the opportunities to gather the fruit of God’s kindness and mercy.