Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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 “hear” or “listen”. 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 the defeat of those who oppose the kingdom may be won through the death of the disciples.
Vulnerable yet enduring
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 21:33-43 – we have the story of the so-called wicked husbandmen. Successive groups are put in charge of the vineyard. They all prove to be self-serving and violent to the owner’s servants. The story is obviously an allegory – all the references are easily connected to people and events known to the audience. But the story is also a parable – the references are open-ended, different interpretations are invited.
Let’s consider the story as a parable and listen to the metaphor of the vineyard.
“Few cultivated crops or plants are so completely dependent on both the careful, skilled work of man and the rhythm of the seasons as the vine. Palestine, land of vineyards, teaches Israel to relish products of the earth, to work wholeheartedly at a task rich in prospect and yet to look forward to results as a gift of the divine liberality” (Marc-François Lacan, “Vine” in Xavier Léon-Dufour, editor, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 555).
The vineyard and its potential fruitfulness are both gift and task – and a vulnerable enterprise.
In Psalm 80:8-9 we read: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land”. Isaiah 5:1-2 continues the metaphor with a sad note: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes”.
There is a constant tension throughout the Hebrew Scriptures between the faithful God – “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you … ” (Isaiah 41:10) – and an unfaithful people – “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me … ” (Matthew 15:8 citing Isaiah 29:13 and Psalm 78:36). This tension is evident in today’s Gospel.
Will the situation of the “vineyard” ever be without this tension? Because we believe in the Incarnation, we expect that God will be faithful, that the gates of hell will not prevail – see Matthew 16:18. Because we believe in our need for redemption, we must expect self-interest and deceit and greed and scandal to be always knocking at the door or even active amongst us.
Coming into the middle of the twentieth century, we Catholics considered ourselves better than the rest. We had arrived, we had the answers, we did not need to change and grow nor did we need to apologize or ask for forgiveness. In fact, we were yielding many “wild grapes”.
The Second Vatican Council was the beginning of a great awakening. We are being called. We are slowly coming to recognize that we must journey into uncharted places. “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10; also Matthew 28:20).