Year A: Twenty-Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time
The Parable of The Tenants
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.
- Reflecting on the metaphor of “the vineyard” as representing your life in the Kingdom, where are you experiencing new invitations for producing “good fruit” at this stage of your journey?
- In what ways do you see Jesus being rejected today?
- To save people from their sins, is to bring them out of separation into communion, to connect them with God, neighbor, and self. Reflect on and discuss on any of the thoughtful questions about self-exclusion raised by Fr. Marsh in his reflection.
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.
How is your Garden Growing?
Fr. Michael K. Marsh
This is neither Jesus’ first nor his last confrontation with the Pharisees. We tend to avoid those with whom we have conflict and confrontation. But not Jesus. He just keeps on coming. At every turn, he is offending, aggravating, and confronting the Pharisees. He eats with the wrong people. He won’t answer their questions. He taunts them by breaking the law and healing on the Sabbath. He calls them hypocrites and blind leaders. He escapes their traps. He leaves them speechless. He rattles off a string of “woes” against them. He compares them to a disobedient son who will not work in the vineyard. They just can’t catch a break with Jesus. He never lets up.
So, what’s that all about? Why can’t he just let go of them? And what does that have to do with us?
Is Jesus looking for a fight? Is his primary motivation to expose and condemn those who do not follow him? Is he keeping score and naming all the attitudes and behaviors of the Pharisees that he considers wrong? Is Jesus trying to exclude the religious leaders of his day from the kingdom of God? I don’t think so.
Here’s what I think these confrontations are about. Jesus is unwilling to give up on the Pharisees, or anyone else for that matter. Jesus is unwilling to give up on you or me. He just keeps on coming. That is the good news, hope, and joy in today’s parable. This is not so much a parable of exclusion or condemnation as it is a parable of Jesus’ unwillingness to give up. His unwillingness to give up on us often confronts us with the truth about our lives that is almost always difficult to hear and accept. We might hear his words but do we realize he is talking about us?
This parable and the confrontation this parable provokes are like a mirror held before us so that we might see and recognize in ourselves what Jesus sees and recognizes. This is not to condemn us but to recover us from the places of our self-exclusion, to call us back to life, and to lead us home.
Jesus doesn’t exclude us or anyone else from the kingdom of God. He doesn’t have to. We do it to ourselves and we’re pretty good at it. That’s what the Pharisees have done. The Pharisees have excluded themselves.
“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you,” Jesus says to them. This is not so much a punishment for failing to produce kingdom fruits. It is, rather, the recognition of what already is. They were given the vineyard and failed to produce and share the fruits of the kingdom. Jesus is just naming the reality, the truth. They have excluded themselves. In the same way, the kingdom of God will be given to those who are already producing kingdom fruits. This is not a reward but a recognition of what already is. Where the fruit is, there also is the kingdom.
If you want to know what the fruits of the kingdom look like then look at the life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. What do you see? Love, intimacy, mercy and forgiveness, justice, generosity, compassion, presence, wisdom, truth, healing, reconciliation, self-surrender, joy, thanksgiving, peace, obedience, humility. I’m not talking about these things as abstract ideas but as lived realities in the vineyards of our lives.
We’ve all been given vineyards. They are the people, relationships, circumstances, and events of our lives that God has entrusted to our care. That means our spouse and marriage, children and family, our work, our church, our daily decisions and choices, our hopes, dreams, and concerns are the vineyards in which we are to reveal the presence and life of God, to produce the fruits of the kingdom. The vineyards, our work in those vineyards, and the fruit produced come together to show us to be sharers in God’s kingdom; or not.
To the degree we are not producing kingdom fruits we have excluded ourselves from and rejected our share in the kingdom. We are living neither as the people God knows us to be nor as the people we truly want to be. In some way, we have stepped outside of ourselves and sidestepped our own life. That’s the truth with which Jesus confronted the Pharisees. It’s the same truth with which Jesus confronts us.
How does that happen? What does self-exclusion look like? Here’s what I’m wondering.
• Do you ever struggle with perfectionism, self-condemnation, and the question of whether you’re enough? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• Do you ever feel like you have to be in control, be right, and have all the answers? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• Are you carrying grudges, anger, resentment? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• Do you look at others and begin making judgments about their belief, choices, or lifestyle? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• Are there people in your life that you have chosen to let go of rather than do the work of reconciliation and heal the relationship? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• Do you go through life on auto-pilot, going through the motions but never really being present, never showing up? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• In your life is there more criticism and cynicism than thanksgiving and celebration? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
• Are you hanging onto some old guilt that you believe could not be forgiven? Maybe that’s self-exclusion.
The antidote to our self-exclusion from God’s kingdom begins with first recognizing that self-exclusion. That means we must look at the vineyards of our lives. So, how’s your garden growing? What do you see? Is there fruit? Is there life? Are you sharing in God’s kingdom?
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. www.paulistpress.com.
Reflection from Interrupting the Silence, By Fr. Michael K. Marsh. Used by permission.