The background to today’s
parable is the economic system in Palestine, that
of absentee landlords letting farms or vineyards
to tenants who paid a rent or got a percentage
of the profits. The owner sent agents at the appropriate
time to get the greatest share. Here the tenants
hoped to take possession while the owner was still
alive, an illegal and foolish scheme which they
could not hope to get away with. The hedge was
to keep out animals; the purpose of the winepress
was for crushing the grapes, obviously, and the
tower was both a shelter and a post used for keeping
Today, first reading from Isaiah,
psalm and gospel point to the vineyard, symbol
for Israel in the Old Testament; the audience
listening to Jesus would have been familiar with
Isaiah and with the psalm. The parable, like that
of last Sunday, is addressed to chief priests
and elders, whose role in bringing about Jesus’
death becomes gradually clearer. Matthew took
the parable from St Mark [12:1], and simplified
it. In Matthew’s version the son is thrown out
of the vineyard and killed, as Jesus was brought
to die outside the walls of Jerusalem. Matthew
has Jesus make his audience answer the question,
and, in doing so, predict their future and that
of Jerusalem (destroyed in 70 AD). They are left
to draw their own conclusions. The other tenants
are not identified. In Matthew’s view it is not
the vineyard but the tenants that must be replaced.
Jesus confronts the leadership of Israel but does
not offer any reason for being anti-Semitic. St
Paul reminds us that God does not revoke his choices.
It is well to remember that
a parable is a parable, not a verdict. As we move
towards the end of St Matthew and the end of Jesus’
life on earth, the tone of the discussion with
the chief priests rises as Jesus tries to alert
them that time is running out for them, if they
are to respond to the Good News. His words are
harsh but they aim at saving, and not condemning.
The final sentence is meant to shock: The kingdom
of God will be taken from you . . . but what counts
is that the kingdom will produce its fruit in
spite of the obstacles men and women can raise.
The capstone or keystone, even if rejected, will
still hold a solid structure together. In the
book of Genesis the sons of Jacob , annoyed at
his dreams, set out to kill and then sell Joseph
the brother whom their father loved, but it was
he who was to save them from famine in due time.
God has a way of turning things upside down to
achieve his purpose.
• The experience of landlordism in this country
is in parallel with that in Israel in the time
of Jesus. Has that led to us into thinking that
we own the vineyard?
• Might the kingdom be taken away from us
in turn as unproductive tenants, and given to
others who will produce its fruit?
• Jesus left it to the leadership of the Jews
to draw their own conclusions. What conclusions
does this parable lead me towards?
• Am I properly grateful to those who bore
the fruits of faith in their lives and shared
them with me?
• The prophet Ezekiel quoted a proverb: “The
parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s
teeth are set on edge”. Am I aware of any obstacle
that I have raised in life to the kingdom producing
• Do I sometimes wonder if the Lord knows
what he is doing with the vineyard, or if He
has just opted out on us for a while?