A good teacher, having tried to get a point across through stories and examples, can read in the expressions on the students’ faces whether or not the penny has dropped. If it hasn’t that teacher knows to try again in another way and with some more examples. As these stories concerning the vineyard appear in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus would appear to be such a teacher. If he had any doubt that the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t fully get it after the story of the two sons and the vineyard, another example might clinch it.
At this stage there is no way that they could not recognize the image. Israel is God’s vineyard. In today’s first reading, the Prophet Isaiah describes that vineyard, planted and tended by God, which produced nothing but wild grapes. In contrast, however, the vineyard in the Gospel story produces a lush harvest. The problem is with the tenants. They have assumed privileges, which are not theirs. When it is time to pay the rent, to give what is due, they not only scoff at the rent collectors, they treat them with violence, wounding them or killing them. When the heir comes, they seize the opportunity to kill him too, so that they might have first claim to the vineyard. It is very clear that the actions of the tenants is by design and deliberate. They plan to take for themselves that which was never theirs. Then Jesus asks his audience to judge the tenants, and of course in so doing they are judging themselves.
The vineyard is equated with the kingdom of God. Those who thought it was theirs by divine right are being told that there is no guaranteed or inherited tenure in God’s kingdom. It belongs to those ‘producing the fruits of it.’ By this time the scribes and the Pharisees have finally perceived that Jesus is indeed talking about them. They react like the tenants in the vineyard. They want to get rid of him, because he is a challenge to their claim to righteousness and privilege.
The message of Jesus never ceases to be a challenge. It was for the scribes and the Pharisees, and it was for the early church communities who struggled with their own questions of belonging and membership. Today’s gospel offers us a challenge to look at the vineyards of our lives in which we are tenants – society, church, community, ministry, our earth home.
Sometimes an ownership mentality can blind us to the fact that we are merely passing through, privileged to be tenants tending the vineyards of our lives, and always willing to pay the rent with the fruits of our harvests.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP