Today’s Gospel builds on last Sunday’s. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus accused Israel’s leaders of faithlessness. They had promised to serve God, but instead they pursued their own agenda. In this week’s “Parable of the Tenants,” Jesus pushes his polemic further. Israel’s leaders had not only failed to keep their promises; they had in fact obstructed God’s plan with violence.
‘He will lease his vineyard to other tenants, who will give him the produce at the proper times.’ (Mt 21:41)
What work has God called you to do in his vineyard?
How do you remember that the vineyard is God’s, not yours?
In the coming chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks some strong words against Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes. These texts are significant in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. One ought to remember that at their inception, these were not anti-Jewish texts. On the contrary, Jesus was a Jew speaking to other Jews with the goal of reforming Israel’s religious culture. Commentators note that Matthew uses the Greek word ethnos in 21:43 not to say that the kingdom will be given to a different “people” but to a different “group, multitude, host.” Matthew here refers to the restored Judaism of the coming age. English speakers might hear a word that has “ethnic” and national connotations, but one should not read these into the parable.
Our Gospel reading today is tied to the first reading. In Isaiah’s allegory, the vineyard Israel, which was meant to produce the “good grapes” of justice and righteousness, instead produced “wild grapes” of bloodshed and outcry. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God threatens to abandon the vineyard to drought, weeds and marauding animals unless Israel starts to yield good fruit.
Jesus modifies this imagery in his remarks against the chief priests and elders. As in Isaiah’s prophecy, the vineyard is Israel, and the vines are the people. Jesus introduces a group of “tenants” who represent Israel’s leadership. They are the ones who produce “wild grapes,” not the nation as a whole. These tenants have attempted to seize the vineyard from its rightful owner and use it for their own ends. This is in fact legally impossible, but they act as if no consequence will befall them. In reality, their selfish and cruel behavior simply sets them up for future retribution.
Matthew makes this parable part of the “Temple sermon,” which Jesus delivered in the days after his entry into Jerusalem. Jesus knew what happened to John the Baptist and many prophets before him, and he knew the knives were out. Israel’s leadership was looking for ways to arrest Jesus, but they feared the crowds (Mt 21:46).
Jesus was the cornerstone that Israel’s leaders rejected. Though their calculations were cynical, they saw in Jesus someone who could unite a fractured Israel. His teachings, however, subverted their power, so they scorned him and his Gospel. Writing decades later, Matthew recognizes the outcome. In their efforts to eliminate Jesus, Israel’s leaders had fatally weakened the nation.
This parable challenges anyone today with a position of leadership in the church. It does not matter if one embezzles millions from an archdiocese or simply bullies parish volunteers, the temptation is ever present to seize God's vineyard for one's own ends. Today’s parable reminds us that such actions are self-destructive and futile. Better instead to remember that our talents, livelihood, resources and vocation are gifts from God, to whom everything shall one day return.