“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.
Today’s Gospel of the wicked husbandmen – Matthew 21:33-43 – gives us a parable that probably has its roots in the very words of Jesus himself. However, over time, the parable was also probably used in the first communities to teach the faithful. It could thus have been adapted and become more like an allegory. That is, the people, events and things in the parable acquired clear references for the listeners. It will be helpful to explore those allegorical references to help us approach the parable for a more personal reading.
The metaphor of the vineyard immediately reminds the listeners of the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard” (see 5:1-7). The vineyard is Israel. Isaiah laments that the vines have yielded only “wild grapes”. The metaphor suggests a loving relationship – the Covenant – marred by the infidelity of Israel. In the allegory then, the landowner is God, the husbandmen the religious authorities of Israel. “The coming of the Messiah, (is) often compared to vintage or harvest time” (Henry Wansbrough OSB, “Matthew” in A New Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, edited by Reginald C Fuller et al, London: Nelson, 1969, 733b). The slaves or servants sent by the landowner are the prophets sent by God to remind Israel of the Covenant and their responsibilities.
Our parable then concludes with the dire warning: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”. “The transference of the kingdom from Israel to a new race is central to Matthew’s message. Not only does he make this ecclesiological aspect the point of the parable …. he emphasizes constantly the Church formed of a new race, composed of Jew and Gentile. …. Matthew is the first to stress that the inheritance of Israel, as a race, passes from them” (op cit 733e).
The parable, understood in this allegorical way, is peculiarly relevant to our own time. It carries the prophecy of a whole new way of being God’s Chosen People, the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom ushered in by Jesus includes the Gentiles. The Covenant forged in the Exodus Event is extended in a New Exodus to peoples beyond the bounds of Israel. In about 57-58 AD, St Paul expresses this beautifully in his Letter to the Christians in Galatia: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28).
Though we must not identify the Kingdom with the Church, there are obvious implications here for our understanding Church – both Church in general and Church in particular as Roman Catholic. Fr Karl Rahner SJ speaks of “the coming to be of a world-Church” (Concern for the Church, New York: Crossroad, 1981, 82). What do you think Fr Rahner might mean – beyond governance structures and institutional realities? How might we think of “Church”?
A video presentation of the Reflection may be found on YouTube via https://stpatschurchhill.org/