Welcome back to the vineyard! Did you notice that this is the third Sunday in a row that Jesus has been telling parables about vineyards? I think this is significant, because vineyards are places where grapes are grown to be pressed, fermented and aged. Finally, the enjoyment comes in the consumption. Wine is used in banquets, parties and celebrations. Backing up, to work in the vineyard is work of initial preparation for a future banquet, party or celebration. Matthew uses these vineyard stories because it is part of the strong Jewish tradition. It comes right out of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah does a parallel between his understanding of the disappointment Israel is to the Lord compared to the disappointment that his friend had over a vineyard. He begins by getting people’s attention by putting it into a song. "Let me sing of my friend’s song concerning his vineyard." Well this should be a very joyful kind of song, but as the disappointment grows, Isaiah boldly declares, "The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel." How disappointing. You can certainly feel this sadness, even now after so many years.
Jesus certainly would have known the writings of Isaiah. So it is quite understandable how Jesus would speak of vineyards to make his point. Notice who he is talking to. He is speaking to the chief priests and the elders. We readers of the gospel frequently project our religious garb onto these men, but we forget that they were also parents and we forget that they were also the vineyard owners. So when Jesus throws this parable to them, they are listening to it on two different levels. First, as vineyard owners. But to take the story deeper, not only are they the owners of their own vineyards, they are also the owners of the vineyard of the Lord. And this is where Jesus has such difficulties with them. He is calling their grapes sour.
Perhaps the most terrifying part of this gospel is what is NOT said. Jesus takes this situation to the front steps of his enemy’s house. He is not in a safe secure location. His conviction of the truth cannot allow him to remain quiet. He stirs up the conflict right in the temple area on the very home turf of the religious leaders. The conviction of speaking the truth out of justice, whether we witness it in Isaiah the prophet or in Jesus, is a dominant theme for the readings today.
This is the 21st chapter of Matthews Gospel. This is after the turning over money changing tables in the temple. By this time he has predicted his passion and death three times and both he and his disciples know this is end for Jesus. That is why he came to Jerusalem. Now he doesn’t come to play it safe and hide out. Instead of hiding Jesus locates himself in the temple area every day. He is in plain sight and begins a lengthy confrontational challenge to the religious leaders.
In telling them a story about the owner and son of a vineyard, Jesus asks them to make a decision on his story. It all seems fairly non-threatening and certainly in line with the day to day sparing that men would do. For Jesus to get this group of people to acknowledge that the farmers would kill the son, is a clever technique of self judgment. Recall how all the gospels build up the plot of the arrest and execution of Jesus. This story of the vineyard then becomes a prophecy of what will happen to Jesus, and in carrying this out the religious leaders, through their actions, will acknowledge Jesus’ sonship. This is something they never would have been capable of through the spoken word. Therefore the judgment comes back upon them. The prophetic voice could have easily spoken to them saying, See, by your actions you confirm his role as Son and acknowledge he was sent by the Father. Yet your religious allegiances leave you listening to voices which do not originate anywhere near the Father nor the Son. In fact, through your actions and in light of this story, you place yourselves in the role of the wicked tenant farmers. You even pronounce your own sentence.
Perhaps it did because in Mt 21:45 we read that the Pharisees realized that Jesus is speaking about them. Sadly, rather than finding repentance, they plot to arrest him and they are left with fear. Instead of choosing something good, right or virtuous, they again follow their own instincts.
Isaiah asks to sing a song of his friend’s vineyard. Rather than a place of joy and gladness, where people are preparing for celebrations, here we find people filled with jealousy, and fear, incapable of hearing truth.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is on the staff of Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center, Citrus Heights, California.