In chapter twenty-one of the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and gets into a run in with the chief priests and Pharisees. They question the source of his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23). In response to their question regarding his authority to cleanse the temple Jesus breaks into three parables of judgment the first two of which use the imagery of a vineyard.
For a first century Jew the allusion to vineyard found in the writings of Isaiah was unmistakable (Isaiah 5:1-7). The Jewish nation, as the vineyard of God, was a familiar prophetic picture and a metaphor for the house of Israel and the people of Judah.
The parable is unmistakably direct in its message and verse forty-five tells us that when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables (both the first and then second parable), they realized that Jesus was speaking about them. Jesus was not merely critiquing temple leadership he was now tearing it to shreds while pronouncing judgment on them.
The parable of today’s Gospel needs some attention for it is beautifully woven to encompass salvation history in ten verses. The parable begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a troubled place with little luxury. Hence, culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience.
While many of these absentee landowners were foreigners who lived in the far-flung territories of the Roman Empire it was not uncommon for the Jews to be landowners. The rent was paid in any of three ways. It might be a money rent; it might be a fixed amount of the fruit or grain, or it might be an agreed percentage of the crop. Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.
Interestingly the parable has twists and turns which is peppered with thoughtfulness as well as confounds common sense. Jesus’ story has the owner of the vineyard providing for security, sanctuary and salary. Remember the vineyard in question is representational for the people of Israel. God has been faithful; he has provided a hedge for security, built a watch tower for protection and as a lodging for the labourers and provided job security. God does not only give us a task to do; he also gives us the means whereby to do it. More than anything there is a great trust that be placed in the hands of the tenants who in the parable are the chief priests and Pharisees.
It might strike us as bit odd when we try to make sense of the landowner’s patience which in this regard has a certain kind of naiveté. God who represents the landowner sent his slaves to collect the rent that is due to him but they are butchered and beaten on both occasions and instead of sending an army the landowner sends his son who is then murdered.
In many of Jesus parables relating to a vineyard or harvest the issues is always of the type of produce. In this case the “produce” was fine, but the delivery system was malfunctioning. The problem was not with the vineyard’s production but with the tenants themselves. Here the tenants rebelliously rob God and attempt to claim for themselves that which they have no claim over.
I hope you still playing along with the parable? I hope so, because the punch line is almost here. Jesus asks his audience (the chief priests and elders), “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The answer is obvious, and the tenants offer it: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him.
In saying this the Chief Priests and Pharisees have brought judgment on themselves. They realize too late that Jesus was talking about them; they were the ones who killed the prophets and wanted to kill the son of God in order to appropriate Israel as theirs when in reality they were only stewards who were assigned to care for what belonged to God.
Each of us has a been entrusted by God with something; a family, people at the work place, a parish, residents of the building society. These have been given to us by God to be taken care of and we are accountable to him, we are but stewards. Ask yourself today what is your vineyard?