Year A: Twenty-Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time

The Parable of The Tenants

Matthew 21:33-43

Jesus said to the people: “Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again, he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Using the vineyard metaphor, where do you feel you are being a good steward of the vineyard in your life, where are you experiencing new invitations for producing good fruit?
  2. How much does scarcity and fear of “not having enough” play a role in living the faith you profess? Explain
  3. Relating to the “God of all people” means including all people? Where do you struggle most with including others as people of the same God?
  4. The call to conversion is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Where do you feel the Spirit may be calling you to deeper conversion in your life right now?

Biblical Context

Matthew 21:33-43
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Today’s parable follows immediately after the parable of the two sons that we read last week. Jesus continues to call to conversion both the elders, who interpreted the law, and the chief priests, who, as heads of priestly families, offered sacrifice in the temple and instructed the people. These religious leaders have questioned Jesus’ authority for acting as he does. Jesus has told them that prostitutes and tax collectors, stereotypical “sinners” in the eyes of the chief priests and elders, are entering the kingdom ahead of them.

In today’s Gospel we see the same pattern that we saw in last Sunday’s reading: Jesus tells a parable, invites his listeners to pass judgment on the characters, and then applies the lesson of the story directly to his resistant audience. A landowner sends his servants to gather the fruits of his vineyard. Instead of treating the servants with respect, the tenants abuse them. When the landowner sends his own son, they murder him.

After telling this gruesome story Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answer, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” In passing judgment on the characters in the story the chief priests and elders have unwittingly passed judgment on themselves. These religious leaders are like the tenants. They have responsibility to care for God’s people. Instead of welcoming Jesus, whom God has sent, they are rejecting him, even planning to kill him. Jesus tells them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

When we hear this story after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, as Matthew’s primarily Jewish audience was hearing it, the meaning is even more evident. A vineyard, in Old Testament imagery, is a symbol for the house of Israel, as we will see in today’s reading from Isaiah. The tenant farmers are those whom God has entrusted to watch over the vineyard, the religious leaders of each generation. The servants who were sent to reap the harvest but who were abused by the tenant farmers are the prophets who called the people to fidelity. The son of the vineyard owner who is killed for his inheritance is Jesus.

By including this parable in his Gospel, Matthew is confronting the Jewish leaders of his own day who have refused to accept Jesus. The “people” to whom the kingdom will be given refers to the Christian community, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. It is ironic that the tenants, the religious leaders, kill the son of the vineyard owner in order to “acquire his inheritance.” The “son” whom they kill, Jesus, came to share the inheritance with them.

In the story, because the tenants abuse the servants and kill the son of the vineyard owner, they deserve a “wretched death.” Notice that Jesus tells the chief priests and elders this story, not to condemn them, but to call them to conversion. Jesus’ enemies are still being invited to the kingdom. However, in order to accept Jesus’ invitation, they must first repent.

Wanting it All

John Shea

Excluding is a well-documented human habit. On every level of our being we push things away. It seems the right thing to do. It is a purifying process. If we have thoughts that disturb us, we do our best not to think them. If there are people who are undesirable, we make sure they are not welcomed into our homes, schools, clubs, and churches. We clear a space where we think we can breathe pure air.

Rigorous reasoning accompanies our hard work of exclusion. These reasons are impeccable, acceptable to our friends. In fact, they are acceptable to all clearthinking people because they are based on unalterable facts. They reflect “the way the world is.” The inner and outer processes of excluding and reasoning make us feel safer, saner, more in charge, and more ourselves.

Zealous exclusions provide us with a well-defined identity. We not only know our boundaries, we guard them. We count ourselves among the elite, the chosen, the elect. Every time we see the mob, we recoil into our superior status. We know who we are by knowing who we are not.

But there are those who say exclusions can get out of hand. When they become a way of life, they narrow us down. We “circle the wagons,” but we may circle them too tightly. In our desire not to be infringed upon, we may be pushing away the very thing, person, situation, feeling, thought, and experience we need. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “We avoid with a passion the very thing that will save us.

Jesus’ name means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). In classical theology sin is considered to be a process of separation from God and from other people. In doing this, they also separate themselves from their own souls. This exclusionary process results in a false and isolated sense of themselves. Sin-defined people are, as St. Augustine and Martin Luther pointed out, “incurvatus a se,” wrapped up in themselves.

Therefore, to save people from their sins is to bring them out of separation into communion, to connect them with God, neighbor, and self. This is the offer of Jesus to the religious leadership of his day. His liberating consciousness and inclusive behavior are what they need. Jesus is asking them to relate to the God of all people by including all people. He is asking them to join the party, but they cannot tolerate so motley a collection of characters. They choose to remain in their isolation. They are better at shunning than welcoming. But why?

Although philosophy, psychology, and sociology have explored exclusionary processes at great length, the story of the murderous tenants suggests a simple reason. They only share this simple reason among themselves, telling it to each other in order to take energy from it. This is the reason beneath the reasons, the dark desire lurking behind the rational explanations: “come, let us kill him and get his inheritance”.

They want the inheritance. They want it all. They want it all for themselves. They do not want to be accountable to God or other people. Their isolation has turned them greedy. They grab for everything they can get. For them, “including” only means there will not be enough for me—enough righteousness, enough money, enough prestige, enough land, enough everything. They live in a world of scarcity, and they are making sure that “they get theirs.” When more are included, they instinctively feel that they will have less. They exclude because they want it all.

Wanting it all is a crazy desire, born of isolation and fear. Its social face is acquisition and greed. Its psychological face is accusation and defensiveness. Its theological face is the preaching of a God I own rather than a God who owns me. But the real God has gone elsewhere.

We do not own the vineyard; we work in it. When we want it all, we inherit nothing.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.