How you see this parable will all depend on if you’re a Christian in the year 2017, or a Pharisee of the first century. So let’s place this parable in perspective. Jesus is at the gates of Jerusalem engaged in a verbal battle with the Pharisees. He has cleansed the temple and now, these leaders challenge His authority. His reply to them is reiterated over three parables; today’s text being the second.
As I said before, it all depends on which point you stand, in order for you to understand the meaning of the text. For us today, God is the owner of the vineyard, the prophets are the servants, Jesus is the Son, the Pharisees are the wicked tenants and we are the new tenants who will inherit the vineyard. This scenario would have panned out quite differently for the Pharisees, who never got the point. Why? Because they were land owners! And so they understood the story with a first century Jewish mind-set. For them, this was a drama and they mistook themselves to be in the lead role.
Many of the Pharisees would have been in reality, what they came to be called, ‘absentee landowners’. Such landowners would lease out the vineyard to tenants and then make their way to the city. The payment to the landowner was made in kind, namely a percentage of the produce. If the landowner did not receive his due, he would simply lease the land to other tenants. The Pharisees, themselves landowners, could not identify even for a second, the role of being a tenant.
The point of the narrative is to highlight that there is nothing wrong with the harvest, but with the attitude of the Pharisees who in this case were the tenants. In response to a seemingly naive landlord, their arrogant and violent response make little sense. Assuming they succeeded in killing the land owner’s son, which they do, they still won’t inherit the land as the father is still alive! But Jesus, in portraying what seemed to be a naive response of the landlord, to send his only son, was actually exposing the evil thoughts in the hearts of the Pharisees.
By the time the penny dropped for the Chief priests and Pharisees, it was too late. Their realization that Jesus was speaking of them as the wicked tenants and not the absentee landlords, was slow to come. They stood exposed and because of the crowds who regarded Jesus as a prophet, refrained from arresting Him or even worse, killing Him right there! What was worse, was that in answering His question, they had condemned themselves with their own words, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (verse 41). In their many attempts to trap Him, they now get trapped themselves. This constant run in between Jesus and the Pharisees is a swan song of the gospel of Matthew.
The Pharisees had misunderstood their role as ‘interpreters of the law’, to be one of mediators between God and man. This power that had now settled in their head falsely created an assurance for themselves, that the seat of Moses truly belonged to them. They assumed they were untouchable. This is why they saw the meaning of the parable too late. They had been drawn into the swamp by Jesus and were stuck in the muck in the eyes of the people, before whom they stood exposed. It was this constant exposure that set their hearts’ intent on crucifying Jesus. Ironically, they were not the landlords in the story; they were the wicked tenants, yet they saw themselves as the victim, when in fact they were the perpetrators of the crime with murderous thoughts in their hearts.
We too ‘don’t own the land’; we are but stewards and the faith has been handed over to us to produce fruit. The danger is when we lose sight of this and begin to see the wicked land grabbing tenants in everyone else, except ourselves. Jesus came to establish that new vineyard in which He, the stone rejected by the Pharisees, will now become the corner stone, in the new vineyard of God (Psalm 118). The roles for us in the new vineyard are up for grabs. Will we choose the old script or join Jesus in writing a happier end to this story?
Fr Warner D’Souza
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