Today’s first reading and the Gospel are both parables. The parable in the first reading is from the Prophet Isaiah and the second is one of Jesus’ parables. And clearly Jesus has used the Isaiah parable to build his own.
The parable we hear today from Jesus is the second of three parables. The first one we had we heard last week. The third one will hear this coming Sunday. In all three parables, Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and the elders of the people, not the Jewish people as a whole. And it is especially important to keep that in mind as we listen to these three of Jesus’s parables.
Isaiah’s parable in the first reading is, as the Prophet tells us, a song about a friend who had a vineyard. He carefully prepared the vineyard, planted the best vines in it, and did everything he could to make sure that it would produce good grapes. Up to this point of the parable, Isaiah’s listeners would have understood this song as a love song, sung probably to a bride by the bridegroom, or by the best man, acting as a “go between” between the bride and the groom. On a deeper level, Isaiah’s listeners might well have understood the song as a reference to the relationship between God, between God and themselves, since the prophets often use this vineyard image to express such a spousal relationship.
However, as the song or parable continues, things take a nasty turn. Instead of producing good grapes, the vineyard has produced nothing but rotten grapes. Finally, the prophet rips off the mask. It is not the prophet, but rather God who is speaking directly to his people. The parable, far from being a love song, becomes a judgment parable. In an impressive play on words in Hebrew, God says that he is looking for judgment, but got bloodshed. God looked for justice but got an outcry instead. In other words, Judah has not produced good fruit. Therefore, God will destroy them.
Less than 200 years later, Judah was in fact destroyed by the Babylonians, leaving only a faithful remnant behind. Jesus has Isaiah’s vineyard image in his mind as he tells the story of a landowner who leases his vineyard to tenants and then goes off on a journey at harvest time. When he sends his servants to obtain his share of the grapes, the tenants seriously mistreat and even kill the landowner’s servants not once, but twice.
Finally, the landowner sends his own son, thinking that surely the tenants will respect him. But the evil tenants kill the son, hoping thereby to gain his inheritance. And that’s where the parable ends. Jesus then asks his hearers what they think the owner of the vineyard will do. They answer that he will put the evil tenants to death and lease out the vineyard to other tenants who will give the landowner the produce at harvest time.
Jesus then turns their own judgment back on themselves. In the same way, he says, the Kingdom of God will be taken from them and given to the people who produce good fruit. And here again, it’s important to keep in mind that Jesus is talking to the chief priests and the elders, not the whole Jewish people.
But what message does the parable have for us?
The key to understanding the meaning of the parable lies in this link to the Old Testament. It is a judgment parable. Such parables force their audience to make a judgment on someone else. The people in the audience realize too late that they are the ones being judged, not the other way around. Thus, in today’s parable, when the chief priests and elders judge that the wicked tenants should come to a sticky end, Jesus turns their judgment back on themselves.
They are the wicked tenants. They are the ones entrusted with God’s vineyard, the people of Israel. They, the religious leaders, no longer in parable, but in fact, have been responsible for killing many of the prophets sent by God. Moreover, in only a few short days after Jesus tells them this parable, they will also be responsible for the death of Jesus Himself, God’s only begotten Son.
What judgment will God bring against the chief priests and the elders, these tenants of God’s vineyard? Our common sense tells us that divine justice demands punishment for these evil deeds, and we would be right. But we had better be careful that our judgment does not get turned back on us. Jesus in this parable addresses each of us as trimmers of God’s vineyard.
How have we looked after that vineyard?
Have we in fact produced the good fruits of justice and love, or only bloodshed and violence?
Do we at times forget that we are only tenants?
Do we imagine ourselves as the owners and do as we please?
Do we hoard more of the fruit of the vineyard than we could possibly use while others die of starvation?
Do we at times act with violence against our fellow human beings who are sons of who are sons and daughters of God no less than we are?
Let us ask God to make us good stewards of God’s vineyard, a vineyard that will produce abundant good fruit for us and for all around us.
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