“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 arvest 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.The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Matthew 21:33-44 – NRSV)
1. Matthew has taken this parable from Mark 12:1-12. Luke does the same – see 20:9-19.
2. This parable is the second of a set of three parables. We had the first one last Sunday – the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) – and we will have the third one next Sunday – the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). These are confronting stories aimed unapologetically at the religious authorities.
3. “Some view the parable as largely or wholly the creation of the church, but as Filson says, ‘The parable is not what the Apostolic Age would have produced. It offers no real doctrine of atonement or clear mention of the resurrection; its atmosphere is not post-Easter. It can best be understood as coming in essentials from Jesus’.” (L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 228).
4. There is a clear reference to the mistreatment of the prophets in the past by beating, killing and stoning – see for example Jeremiah 20:2; 26:21-23; 2 Chronicles 24:19-21. Jesus made his own references to this on more than one other occasion – see for example Matthew 5:12; 22:6 and 23:30-37. We also have echoes here of Isaiah’s “Song of the vineyard” – see Isaiah 5:1-7. There the owner is God and the vineyard is Israel and she produces only wild grapes.
5. Jesus’ question, “Have you never read in the scriptures ….”, is a clear reference to Psalm 118:22-23. This question has a cutting irony to it, addressed as it is to the religious leaders who most surely would have read those scriptures. And in an earlier verse of that same Psalm we read: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (verse 17). This reference to Psalm 118 points to Jesus’ vindication which will become obvious after the Resurrection. Because the religious leaders have failed, the responsibility of the kingdom will be handed over to others: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a
witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you” (Isaiah 55:1-5). The religious leaders are obviously not pleased with this prophecy and its particular implications for them.
The parable says the owner leased the vineyard to tenants. He did not sell it or give it, he leased it. In other words, the tenants do not own the vineyard. Yet they act as if they own it. They have taken possession of his vineyard and act aggressively to keep it.
On what basis can I ever claim anything as mine? I can make that claim on the basis of the law of the land or on the basis of cultural custom or agreements between people. Ownership is a fiction devised by us.
What is it about “ownership” – this fiction – that can turn human beings into destructive monsters? Ownership – a sense of “this is mine” – can give rise to horrible behaviours, hatred, violence, even murders.
There is a brief moment towards the end of the Coen brothers’ 2007 film, No Country for Old Men, where the hired killer – Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem – is involved in a car accident at an intersection. Two young boys come to his aid. Their compassion and care is obvious until Chigurh offers them $100. Suddenly the compassion and care of the two focused on another human being in trouble becomes anger and aggression towards each other focused on the money.
It is worth noting that religious traditions such as BUddhism, Hinduism and Christianity,target ownership as a potential point of corruption in the human person. In our Cartholic tradition, the pivot of the consecrated life of vowed religious is the vow of poverty. Religious are encouraged to relinquish ownership of any kind.
Social and cultural conventions allow us the fiction of ownership to fulfil our basic needs. But ultimately we own nothing. Death will be like passing through a small hole in a wall where you can only fit if you are naked and carrying nothing.
So why is enough never enough?