On the Parable of the Wicked Tenants
(Isa.5:1-7; Phil.4:6-9; Mt.21:33-43)
Today’s readings once again use the metaphor of the vineyard to explore the way we live our lives. The question this time is about how we are using the extraordinary gifts God has given us.
Our first reading from Isaiah is often called the Song of the Vineyard. It tells the story of a beautiful vineyard that its owner carefully cultivates and gives to tenants to look after. But instead of a bountiful harvest, all these tenants produce is sour grapes.
Jesus builds on this story in Matthew’s Gospel, in his Parable of the Wicked Tenants. A landowner asks some tenants to look after his vineyard while he’s away.
Now, leasing vineyards wasn’t unusual in biblical times. Wealthy landowners often had tenants look after their vines, and the tenants paid rent by sharing the crop with the owner at harvest time. But in Jesus’ parable, the tenants refuse to pay anything. When the rent collectors arrive, they respond by beating, stoning and even killing them.
The landowner then sends his son, expecting a better response. But he’s killed, too. The tenants want that vineyard all for themselves, without any payment and without any conditions.
In this parable, the landowner represents God, and the vineyard is the people of Israel. The tenants are the religious and political leaders who God expected would look after his people. And the harvest is the good and wholesome lives that God wanted them to cultivate.
The landowner’s son is Jesus, and the servants he sends to collect the produce are the prophets.
We know from Scripture that the prophet Jeremiah was beaten (Jer.26:7-11; 38:1-28), Zechariah was stoned (2Chron.24:21) and John the Baptist was killed (Mt.14:1-12). So, by telling this story, Jesus is reminding the Jewish leaders of how they have failed to look after his people, and how they have consistently mistreated God’s messengers.
This parable gives us a good summary of Jesus’ life. He was sent by his Father to the people of Israel, to show them how to produce good fruit. But as we know, the leaders of the time considered him a threat to their privilege and power, so they had him killed. These leaders were living the good life in God’s vineyard, and they refused to be held accountable for it.
This parable also reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve. God created the Garden of Eden and invited Adam and Eve to look after it for him, on one condition. But after being tempted by the serpent, they decided that it wasn’t enough to be caretakers. They wanted that garden all for themselves, without any limits. So, they turned their backs on God and thereafter suffered the consequences.
Now, isn’t all this really the story of our own world today? God created our beautiful world; he designed it to produce lots of wonderful fruits for the benefit of all mankind.
None of us owns this world, however. It still belongs to God, although each of us has been given a piece of it to look after. But it’s not enough to simply keep our little patch tidy and weed-free. We actually need to produce something – something worthwhile and nourishing that benefits others and also pleases God.
Have we been doing that?
Collectively, we are the caretakers of his planet and God expects a harvest of good fruit from us all. But so many of us have let him down. Too many of us have plundered the earth’s resources and used God’s gifts for selfish purposes, giving nothing in return. Too many of us produce little or no fruit.
Worse still, some people are actually producing bad fruit. Consider all the cruelty, corruption, violence and pollution in our world today.
In today’s parable, Jesus asks, ‘When the owner returns, what will he do to those tenants?’ Well, here’s the answer: ‘He’ll bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he’ll give the vineyard to someone who will produce good fruit.’
And what is that good fruit? St Paul tells us. It’s the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal.5:22-23a). These are the fruits God expects from his people.
Ironically, these are precisely the things we want for ourselves. But we can never get them by rejecting God, for these things only come from God. We need the Holy Spirit to help us achieve them.
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that he’s the keystone, the solution we’re looking for. In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you’ll bear much fruit’.
Jesus was planted in us at our baptism, and today God is calling us to cultivate this vine in our lives. We are meant to produce a rich harvest of good fruit. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start.
And if you need help, just ask Jesus.