27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year: A
Is 5.1-7; Phil 4.6-9; Mt 21.33-43
A guard in charge of a lighthouse along a dangerous coast was given enough oil for one month and told to keep the light burning every night. One day a woman asked for oil so that her children could stay warm. Then a farmer came. His son needed oil for a lamp so he could read. Another needed some for an engine. The guard saw each as a worthy request and gave some oil to satisfy all. By the end of the month, the tank in the lighthouse was dry. That night the beacon was dark and three ships crashed on the rocks. More than one hundred lives were lost. The lighthouse attendant explained what he had done and why. But the prosecutor replied, “You were given only one task. to keep the light burning. Every other thing was secondary. You have no excuse.”
It’s a Choice
Temptation is a choice between good and evil. But perhaps more insidious than temptation is conflict where one must choose between two good options. The lighthouse keeper in our story found himself in such a conflict situation. So also are the would-be disciples in today’s gospel story. In such cases the good easily becomes the enemy of the best One must then say no to a good thing in order to say yes to the one thing necessary. Today’s gospel is a sequence of four incidents and encounters with people who could have become followers of Jesus but who were held back by ulterior concerns and motives. Each encounter highlights a different concern.
If you were a first-century Jew and heard for the first time that Jesus was the true vine and his people were the branches (Jn 15.1, 5), you would have mixed emotions. On one hand, we would be quite familiar with the idea of comparing people to vines and vineyards. Grapevines were a familiar sight in Palestine. The Bible, the Old Testament, frequently refers to Israel as being a vine that God planted. We may have recited Psalm 80 in your morning prayers. In verses 8-9 the Psalmist says to God, "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land." We would know how God brought Israel out of Egypt and planted it in the promised land.
We have read the words of the Hebrew prophets who likened Israel to a vine or vineyard. You would recall the words of Hosea who said that "Israel was a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit" (10.1). Hosea meant that Israel increased in prosperity. But he went on to say that Israel's prosperity unfortunately led to increased idolatry. "The more his fruit increased the more altars he built."
We may have chanted these words of Isaiah. " . . . my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill … He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes" (5.1-2). No doubt, we were haunted time and again with the words of God spoken to his people through Jeremiah. "I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?" (2.21). That would have reminded us of Ezekiel's chilling words spoken against Judah. "Therefore thus says the Lord God. Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (15.6).
Vine and Vineyard
As a first-century Jew we would be very familiar with the symbolic meaning of vine and vineyard. In fact, the idea was so prevalent in the first century that in one of his parables Jesus expressly made use of the vineyard motif as symbolism for Israel (Mk 12.1-12). Jesus concluded the parable by saying that the owner will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. In response to the parable, the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus because "they realized that he had told this parable against them." The symbolism of vineyard was not lost on them.
When Jesus began to tell the parable that is the gospel of today he began with an image familiar to his listeners - including you and me. This image is the vineyard, and the word 'vineyard' usually symbolizes some kind of spiritual good.
But now Jesus took this image, surely dear to the hearts of the Galileans who listened, and turned it on sort of upside down. We know, it's not unusual for Jesus to take a word or an image associated with the holy and turn it around and associate it with the dark. He did it in the Parable of the Leaven for example.
Community vs Collection of People
As I understand this parable, it is Jesus' commentary about groups and about what happens when there was no real community, only collections of people, none of whom understands or cares about other each other. We have come thousands of years since Jesus told this parable, and in some ways we have made wonderful progress in community building - even our nation is one example, another our own Journeying Community. There have also been disasters too. Is this the way to fulfillment?
The Parable and its Plot
A landowner goes to a distant country and there he establishes a vineyard in imagination it is in Galilee and he rents or leases the vineyard to local people and agrees to accept a portion of the produce as payment. He then returns home probably some cosmopolitan city such as Caesarea Philippi, Jaffa or Jerusalem. Time passes; the harvest season comes and goes and so does the time when he is supposed to receive his payment. The grapes that the vineyard produced he might now be willing to accept as raisins, but he receives nothing. He is troubled, downright angry. He expects his payment when it is due, and nothing arrives, not even an explanation.
There is a total lack of moral involvement here; the landlord buys, leaves, and waits for his money. He is totally indifferent to what is happening back at "the farm." He probably lives like a king many miles away. The lives of the tenants are as nothing to him. He could be like present day C.E.O.; and millions of stock holders who have no clear idea to what use their investment are used.
The Rent Squad
This landlord sends his slaves, emissaries or the Rent Squad, as you will. A party of three goes to the vineyard, and being completely unprepared for a violent encounter, they suffer greatly. One is knocked in the head with a rock, another is beat up and a third one is actually killed. We can only guess at what the landowner makes of this situation. Perhaps he does not even know what has become of his rent collectors, so he sends a second deputation consisting this time of a more than three persons, a cadre now but they receive a similar rough reception of beatings and a killings; but still no rent. In this parable, there are potentially three communities. tenants, rent collectors, and landlords; they are totally separate from one another.
Community requires shared beliefs, and in this parable there are none. We could hear in this details the present day situation among Israelis - Palestinians; we hear Indians and our neighbours, Pakistanis. Enmity that never found a soothing relief.
He sends his Son
Eventually the owner in a truly idiotic fashion sends his own son who is, the owner thinks, able to protect himself by his status in society alone so it seems. When he shows up, the tenants perhaps miscalculate and presume that the owner is dead. So, believing the son to be the sole surviving heir, they kill him in the expectation of acquiring the vineyard for themselves. The plan is absurd and illegal, just as it would be today, but they are driven by their otherwise hopeless economic situation.
These tenants, probably decent, honest people in the beginning, have now become truly a dangerous band, and now they have gone beyond the law and are criminals. The reason is the desperate need for money to survive. Under these circumstances, their behavior is not surprising.
The Land is leased
One verse in Matthew 21.33 is very important. It says that the landowner leased the land to the tenants. It does not say that He gave it to them. He leased it. When something is leased, something is expected in return. Equally, those who qualify to become the children of God, are expected to become shining lights (Mt 4.16) in the world. They are expected to shine in the love of Christ towards all. They are expected to grow in the fruit of the Holy Spirit. These spiritual qualities are what the Heavenly Father expects His children to present to Him in return for His blessings in acknowledgement and appreciation of the gift of life that God has given them through the Blood of Christ.
Think about it this way for a moment. We are all tenants on borrowed land; none of us owns the earth. Do we care for this piece of 'land' we've been given? We are also landlords and might lord it over others. We need to see how we treat those who share the earth with us.
End of Tenants
Now near the end of the parable, Jesus asks "... when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" And the answer is that the owner will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his produce at the harvest time.
Tenants such as these become hard strapped for cash and simply try various strategies to avoid paying to the landlord fees or rent or a portion of the produce. The story is about to repeat itself until some saving insight develops on all sides. Half of the world's population lives even today on less than $ 3 a day! And a billion go to bed hungry every night.
Jesus' parable is provoking; it is a strong warning about the consequences of groups estranged from one another. In it, all are 'foreigners' to one another; nothing is in harmony; the world is out of order, and it was against that state of things that Jesus social teachings were directed.
By way of contrast to so such negativity, the parable implies that we are the tenants of the new land where we are called by Jesus. We both cultivate and receive cultivation. We have been given a treasure within us and around us and asked to take good care of both.
Well then having spent these minutes dwelling with such awful disorder, shall we close with what are more happy, consoling words, lines from another source - from one who was a worker in the vineyard of the Lord; he truly was a worker, a true tenant.
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD
Vancouver - Canada