“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.” (Matthew 21:33-43 – NRSV)
Matthew’s parable is dependent on Mark 21:12:1-12. Luke similarly borrows from Mark – see Luke 20:9-19. Matthew has already used the symbol of the vineyard in 20:1–16.
The symbolism of the vineyard is borrowed from Isaiah 5:1-8. The whole of Chapter 5 of the prophet gives a good context for this encounter between Jesus and the religious authorities.
This parable is one of three – 21:28–22:14 – placed in the middle of five controversies Jesus has with the religious authorities – 21:23–27 (the authorities question Jesus’ authority);
“In 21:33–46 Matthew has taken over the parable of the vineyard from Mark 12:1–12. That parable relates the harsh treatment given to Jesus and the harsh treatment given to God’s earlier messengers. There are some clear allegorical features: the vineyard is Israel; the tenant farmers are Israel’s leaders; the householder is God; the earlier messengers are the prophets; and the son is Jesus. The other elements in the story (the hedge, the winepress, etc.) have no obvious allegorical significance. There are problems in tracing the parable back to Jesus himself: the use of the Greek Bible (21:33, 42), the allegorism, the foreknowledge of Jesus’ death (21:38), and the reference to Jerusalem’s destruction (21:41). It is possible that something like this parable originated with Jesus and was developed and expanded within the early Church until it was taken over by Mark.” (D J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 303.)
listen: The Greek verb is akouō meaning “to hear” or “listen to”. The word taps into very rich etymological ground. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is often used to translate Shema – see Deuteronomy 6:4. It links attentiveness, obeying, comprehending with the physical act of listening and hearing.
the stone: This is a reference to Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The words that follow this verse of the Psalm are also significant: “This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Despite the apparent “victory” of the wicked tenants, the victory actually belongs to God. The symbol of the stone is similarly found in Isaiah: 8:14–15 and 28:16.
the kingdom of God: John the Baptist proclaimed repentance for the “kingdom of heaven” (3:2). Jesus began his preaching similarly: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (4:23). Central to the coming of “the kingdom” is the defeat of evil in its many forms – see for example 4:24. This parable reminds the disciples that there are those who oppose the kingdom and their defeat may be won through dying.
On 1 February 1867, in his Inaugural Address as Rector of St Andrew’s University in Scotland, John Stuart Mill told his audience: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” (Inaugural Address, People’s Edition, Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1867, 36.) Mill went on to explain what he meant: “He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject. It depends on the habit of looking into and attending to public transactions and on the degree of information and solid judgement respecting them that exists in the community, whether the conduct of the nation as a nation, both within itself and towards others, shall be selfish, corrupt and tyrannical, or rational and enlightened, just and noble” (Ibid).
John Stuart Mill gives us a good starting point to reflect on our responsibility as adult members of any society – whether it be the Church or civil society. We resonate instantly with his thinking, recognizing a fundamental truth that no one can deny. In fact, the truth he articulates has been taken up by other thinkers. It is sometimes attributed – incorrectly – to the Irish statesman, Edmund Burke (1729-1797). But the life and teachings of Jesus takes us far beyond what even the most enlightened human being can offer.
Today’s text from Matthew tells of a commercial business that is hijacked by evil people. They act as if they are not accountable to any moral or legal restraints.
This story of the wicked tenants reminds us of a central theme in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is ushering in a new world, a state of being in which good triumphs over evil, love over hate, the truth over the lie, forgiveness over resentment, life over death. This is “the Kingdom of God”. Matthew has already reminded us of what is at stake here: “The Son of Man must go up to Jerusalem and die” (Matthew 16:21). Evil must be defeated at its roots. The victory will come via the Cross.
The “Kingdom” will not be won by mere cleverness or military might or by wealth or political power or education or even moral integrity, significant as these may be. There is a struggle to be engaged and a victory to be won that depends ultimately on God. “The transformation through which the world must pass will not be merely political. …. The great political movements of our time, so complex and so often apparently so meaningless, are the smoke screen behind which are developing the evolutions of a spiritual war too great for men to wage by any human plan.” (Thomas Merton, The Monastic Journey, Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977, 36f.)
Do you really mean it when you say, “Thy kingdom come”?