“The vineyard of the Lord” by Fr Dan Carroll
27th Sunday Lectio divina on Mt 21,33-43 by Fr Juan J. Bartolome’ SDB
Jesus’ listeners understood this parable without much difficulty. In the Bible the vineyard is the traditional image for the relationship between God and his people. The life ambition of many people was to own a vineyard. They saw it as the image of all they wanted in life and all they worked for. As good farmers they knew the care and attention the owner had to give to his vineyard, and so they understood the care and attention God gives to his people, as longs as they saw themselves as belonging to God. In reality the parable is about the way God deals with his people. However, belonging to God brings with it a responsibility to work.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, 33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard; he fenced it round, dug a winepress in it and built a tower; then he leased it to tenants and went abroad. 34 When vintage time drew near he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his servants, thrashed one, killed another and stoned a third. 36 Next he sent some more servants, this time a larger number, and they dealt with them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them thinking, “They will respect my son.” 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Come on, let us kill him and take over his inheritance.” 39 So they seized him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41 They answered, ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him when the season arrives.’ 42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone. This was the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful to see? 43 ‘I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’
Understand what the text is saying, focussing on how is says it Jesus continues to respond in a veiled manner to the question put to him by the leaders of the people after he expelled them from the temple. The tone is therefore controversial. In his response Jesus passes over the original question, as he often does, and goes on to give a further teaching. He does not need to explain his behaviour but his objectors must answer to God. If they do not obey God, they will be disinherited as People of God. In the parable of the vineyard and the workers, Jesus appeals to his listeners’ own experience and offers a blunt conclusion based on the Word of God: the kingdom will be taken from them and given to others. This conclusion was in total contradiction to the faith and the experience of the people of Israel. They knew that God had never abandoned his people, despite their repeated infidelity, and believed that God would never abandon them in favour of others. Their surprise, offence and indignation could not have been greater.
The message of the parable is not really about the vineyard or the workers, but about the owner. He is the main actor. The others, the vineyard and the workers, react to his initiative. We need to bear this in mind if we are to get the true meaning of the parable. The owner worked personally on his vineyard: he planted it, fenced it round, dug a winepress, and built a tower. It may come as a surprise, then, that he leased it, and left it to the workers to produce fruit, but it was customary for landowners to rent out their property.
It was reasonable that, at the appropriate time, he should collect his share of its produce. He sent his servants twice, and then, following the completely unjustifiable reaction of the vineyard workers, he sent his own son. This was not a very clever plan but it was the best the owner could do to get what was due to him. The obstinacy of the vineyard workers was unlawful and it was not very intelligent. Killing the son, sent by his father, did not give them any right nor indeed any hope of ever becoming owners of the vineyard they had rented. They were unfaithful to the agreement they had made. The conclusion was so obvious that Jesus left it to his opponents to formulate it for themselves. Justice must prevail. The tenants were not worthy of the landlord’s trust, and so they lose, not only his trust, but also the vineyard that they wanted so badly.
What the authorities certainly did not expect was that Jesus would use a biblical quotation (Ps 118,22-23) to reveal that God will treat his people the same way that the owner of the vineyard treated the tenants. What was spoken by Jesus as a serious threat is presented by the writer of the gospel as an accomplished fact. This confers on the sentence an exceptional gravity: anyone who does not give God his due, will lose God and all that was entrusted to him. If God has done this to the people of Israel, why should he not do it to us?
II. Meditate: apply what the text is saying it life
The parable spoken by Jesus is a symbol of God’s relationship with his people. The kingdom of God will belong to those who bear fruit and do not withhold it from the one to whom it is due. The warning is still valid today: no one can claim any privilege in the eyes of God. Those who were chosen in the past have greater responsibility now. Anyone who does not live up to God’s demands will not possess his kingdom. The warning is meant, in the first place, for the Christian community. We should not fool ourselves into thinking we will receive God’s inheritance if we have not first acknowledged his rights.
A man who worked hard planting a vineyard, left it in the hands of some farm-workers. When harvest time came, he thought, reasonably enough, that it was time for him to gain some return from his vineyard. However, the tenants overlooked the work the owner had done and his legitimate rights. They thought that if they denied him his due return, they themselves would become the owners. By keeping for themselves what rightfully belonged to the owner, they were deceived into thinking that they had a right to what was not theirs. Not only that, but since they did not recognise the owner’s rights, they went so far as to kill his messengers. They thought they would inherit the vineyard if they got rid of the owner’s servants and his son and heir. The owner’s reaction was inevitable – he could not have acted any other way. Jesus’ listeners knew this immediately. ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him Jesus concludes the parable with a serious warning: ‘the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ They will lose the gifts they have already received from God if they do not recognise that they are mere tenants, and if they do not give the fruit of their labours to God to whom it is due. The kingdom will not be given to those who already have, but to those who know how to make good use of the gifts they have received. The kingdom is not yet ours. Those who do not render account to God will not possess it. If we think we have no obligations, we are denying God and his rights.
In this parable, Jesus affirms two norms that characterize God’s way of acting towards his people: his personal concern for them and the hard work he does on their behalf. Nobody works harder than the owner of the vineyard. Nobody is more concerned about his people than God. At the same time, Jesus reminds us of our obligation to give God the fruit of our labours in return for all he has done for us. Every tenant, for the simple fact of being a tenant, owes a debt to the owner. The kingdom of God will belong to those who are concerned about producing fruit. It will not be given to those who refuse to acknowledge that they are debtors. The warning is still valid to this day. No one can claim privilege in the eyes of God. Those who have been chosen have greater responsibility. We are obliged to live according to the grace we have received. The more we have received, the greater the debt we owe to God and the greater our responsibility. If we do not live by the demands of God we will not possess the kingdom.
The warning is intended in the first place for the Christian community. We should not deceive ourselves. We will not receive the kingdom of God as an eternal inheritance if we do not first recognise that we owe everything to God.
If we are to respond to God’s gifts, we must first acknowledge what we have received. It could well be that we think we have nothing or nobody to answer to God for, because we fail to recognize that everything we have received, and all the people we love, are gifts from God. If we go on thinking that what we possess has been acquired by our own efforts, we will never acknowledge our indebtedness to God and we will never be grateful to him.
Like the tenants in the parable we will strive with all our might to possess what is not ours. The good things of God are not achieved by being good but by being grateful. God does not bestow himself on those who think they deserve him but on those who are grateful. We preserve God’s gifts only while we acknowledge our indebtedness to him and remain constantly grateful, cost what it may. Forgetting the gifts we have received and denying our debt of gratitude to God is the first step towards claiming as our own what belongs to God. We will never enter into possession of the gifts God has given us in life if we do not dedicate our whole lives to thanking him and rendering him an account of what we have received. All that God has done for us will become a cause of reproach to us if we do not live in constant gratitude to him. The first and best way of thanking God for the gifts we have received is to make responsible use of them. We resolve our debt to God when we acknowledge that he is the origin of every good thing we possess, and put everything at his disposal and under his sovereignty.
If we take seriously the need to live in permanent gratitude to God and to make responsible use of his gifts, it will lead us to the discovery of how he cares for us and how much he loves us. Like the owner, who worked personally in his vineyard before handing it over to the tenants, and who expected its fruit only after he had cared of it, so the God of Jesus asks of us what we owe him, the fruit of the gifts we have received. He asks, above all, that we acknowledge his interests and his care and attention.
We should be proud to have such a God. Like the vineyard owner, he has invested his labour and his hopes in us. He trusts us to repay what he has given us. It does not make sense to be afraid of such a God, or to remain at a distance from him. Unfortunately however, as Jesus warns us in the parable, if we do not acknowledge God as the source and origin of all the goods we have at our disposal, we refuse to live as grateful servants. The tragic thing is, as Jesus himself says, those who refuse to acknowledge the gifts they have received in life finish always by denying life to those who ask for it, be they the master’s servants or his own son.
We live in a world that tends to think it can live without God and refuses to respond to others. If we do not nourish the sense of gratitude to God for all he has done for us, and is doing or wants to do for us, then we will not feel grateful to God or responsible for the people he sends us and the things he gives us. The only way we can show the world that we still rely on God and on his gifts is by giving an account to God of all that he has placed in our hands. We will never feel grateful to God if we do not recognize our indebtedness to him.
We owe him a debt to gratitude for all he has done for us and for the action of his grace in our lives. The fruit of what we have received belongs to him.