by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Almighty; the people of Judah are the vines God planted.” Isaiah 5, 1-7

“I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
Matthew 21, 33-43

Today’s gospel parable of the morally bankrupt tenants is very tightly constructed and has multiple layers of meaning. It is paralleled in the first reading from Isaiah with the allegory of “the friend’s vineyard”, in which God’s work in the world is described through images from farming.

Using imagery from horticulture, Isaiah describes how God goes about growing people. While it might sound a bit forced, I think we would have to agree that the image of “God, the gardener” is a significant improvement on the more frequent image of God as “the Grim Reaper”.

One of the lessons in this for us is that, whenever we take a hand in “growing” people, we have to respect the fact that they all have distinctive personalities and individual needs. We must recognise that some need shelter and protection, others are sensitive, while others still quickly recover from being trampled under foot. While all need physical and emotional nourishment, that does not mean that their every demand has to be satisfied. And then there are some for whom “pruning” is necessary. But it’s not always easy to convince them of that. Yet, we know that, if the cultivation and pruning process goes well, the reward is a rich harvest of people with a wide range of personalities and talents, which they generously share with those around them.

In the gospel parable, we see Jesus roundly criticizing the tenants of his day, to whom God’s vineyard had been entrusted. God is described as leasing the property to the religious leaders of Israel. Despite the fact that a long line of prophets (the servants in the parable) had been sent to them to remind them of their debts, they paid no heed. What’s more, not only did they ignore them but they also brutalized them. Their crowning treachery was to murder the vineyard owner’s son and heir, as he was the last remaining obstacle to their taking possession of the property in their care. Clearly, this is a thinly veiled reference by Jesus to himself, and how he would be brutally murdered outside Jerusalem (the vineyard). For Matthew, Jesus was the last in the long line of prophets rejected by Israel.

In looking at this parable, we have to wonder which parts of it fit into Jesus’ version, and which parts were added by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel. There is little doubt that Jesus was intent on giving the opportunity to the religious leaders who opposed him to paint themselves into a corner. The parable is situated in the context of the religious leaders challenging Jesus’ authority to teach. The religious leaders seemingly saw both John the Baptist and Jesus as threats to the control they held over the interpretation of the Law and what they regarded as legitimate religious practice. To protect themselves, they questioned the authority of both John and Jesus. However, knowing the respect the ordinary people had for John, they did not criticize John in public. In the context of today’s gospel parable, both the Baptist and Jesus were asking for God’s rent to be paid, for what was produced by the religious practice of the nation to be used for the benefit of God’s poor. However the religious leaders preferred their own customs and status to the growth and development of the ordinary people they led. What the religious leaders (tenants) failed to recognize was that, in the long run, they would be required to account not to one another, nor to the Law, but to God, the one in whose name they claimed to act. But, by adding just one verse, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel shifted the focus of the parable from the religious leaders of Israel to the members of the new Christian community, to those who would be expected to be “fruitful vines” at the time of the Great Harvest at the end of the world. It is for that reason that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel attributed to Jesus the following: “I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21, 43)

But how does this parable touch our lives? I suggest at several levels.

To begin with, this story has some parallels with the creation story in Genesis. We are stewards of God’s estate, the earth. We are not its owners, and, as tenants, we have a responsibility to account for our stewardship. We have a duty to care for the earth, to treat it with respect, to protect it as our common home, giving opportunity to all of humankind to draw from the earth a sound and sustainable future.

It is important for us to accept that there is a temptation for those who are part of any institution, including the Church, to put privilege and position ahead of the demands of personal and spiritual growth. Even those of us in different levels of Church leadership can fall into the same trap as the religious leaders whom Jesus confronts in today’s parable. We can cling to the comfort offered by inflexible religious practice and, as a consequence, resist healthy change. Indeed, all of us can find ourselves quashing new directions for growth because of our fear of change or resentment that others may have suggested it first. To make matters worse, we can descend into bad-mouthing those brave enough to explore the new. If you can’t see that close to home, pause for a moment to hear the criticism directed at Pope Francis for wanting to open the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate fully in Eucharist. He is bad-mouthed as a heretic.

There is just one other corollary to this. We can all ask ourselves what is our way of distinguishing whether we are in a rut or whether we are growing. And what scale do we use for others? Here’s a simple measure: Do I hear myself and others talking about ways to grow? From those in ruts, one rarely hears anything about growing. Jesus spoke about it often. There’s something in there that is worth pondering. When did you last catch yourself thinking or talking about growing?