The parable we are presented with today is the third in a line of three parables to be found in Matthew’s Gospel which concern themselves with vineyards. It is no mistake that Jesus often uses the vineyard as a symbol of the Kingdom of God.
There certainly are many parallels between a vineyard and the Kingdom. Maintaining a vineyard is hard work and it takes equally hard work to enter the Kingdom of God, but the hard work of planting, pruning and harvesting the vines and then pressing the grapes eventually leads to the production of wonderful wine which brings joy to the heart.
We can see how his is a very appropriate parallel for the hard work which ultimately leads to the unsurpassable joy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable for today is the most direct of the three parables about vineyards. It comes closest to describing the actual situation of Jesus who is represented by the son of the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are clearly understood to be the Chief Priests and Elders who have usurped the rights of the owner. And the prophets are the servants who are beaten up and kicked out by the tenants.
Jesus warns the priests and elders that the vineyard is about to be taken from them but they ignore his words and carry on with their distorted beliefs and twisted actions, which eventually end up with them putting to death the Son of God.
But as Jesus warns them, the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Jesus whom they dismissed as someone of no consequence turns out to be the very stone upon which God chooses to build his Church. He is the one who wins salvation for the whole people. It is the elders and priests who end up being cast aside.
Their big mistake is their failure to realise that the Kingdom of God was never going to be inaugurated with fanfare and trumpet and a great entrance procession with them being given pride of place. Just a few days beforehand they had failed to notice the humble entry by Jesus into his Holy City on the back of a donkey with a few impoverished supporters waving palms. The entrance of the Messiah into his Holy City went by without them even noticing it; how ironic is that?
The elders and the priests were supposed to be responsible for preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah but instead they brand him as a troublemaker and have him arrested, tried and executed in the name of expediency. They have completely missed the point and have focussed on their own aggrandisement rather than on their heavy spiritual responsibilities.
Jesus piles on the pressure when he asks them if they have read the scriptures. He certainly demonstrates quite a lot of cheek asking the Chief Priests and Elders if they have read the scriptures. That was their job, and their sole purpose in life, to read and interpret the scriptures for the people. They must have been furious with Jesus, regarding him as an upstart who is telling them how to do their own job.
The greatest twist in this whole episode is that Jesus manages to get the Chief Priests to issue the verdict on themselves. He asks them what should the owner of the vineyard do with these traitorous tenants. They give the answer, ‘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.’
There is no more to be said, since the Chief Priests have just pronounced the verdict on themselves. There is an exquisite irony in this and it is not lost on Jesus.
It is actually a pity that the Gospel text today finishes so soon; if you move on a verse or two Matthew tells us, “When the Chief Priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.”
That is the final upshot. Jesus has so irritated them and shown them in such a bad light that instead of reforming themselves they decide to kill him. These powerful parables show the Chief Priests, the religious elite and the other senior citizens in a very bad light. And the fact that they feel that their hypocrisy has been revealed by Jesus to the world makes them determined to do away with him.
Of course, as always, there is a lesson here for us too. We have to be aware of the role we are playing in the world in which we live. We are in an analogous position to those priests. We have been entrusted by Christ with the duty to proclaim his Gospel of love to the world. This is a sacred responsibility, it is a great privilege; but we know that it is not easy and it is often tempting to neglect our responsibility in this regard.
However, we do not want to find ourselves castigated because of our failure to lead others to salvation. We were invited by God to be his representatives in the world and we accepted this responsibility. It is now up to us how well we carry out this important task. And it is a task that really involves each one of us; it is not something we can leave to the priest or the parish councillors, it involves us all.
It is our duty to hand on the faith first and foremost to our children. We need to do this principally by showing a good example. If our children do not see us praying then there is little chance that they will pray. If our children overhear us telling a big lie, will they not immediately follow suit? If they observe us gossiping about our neighbours or committing any one of numerous other faults then we will not be surprised when they fall away from their faith.
We are principally the evangelists of our children. And those of us with no children or those whose children have grown up need to support those who presently have children and we ought to do whatever we can, even if only indirectly, to help them carry out their role. And prayer for them is surely an important part of this.
The parables of Christ last forever and there is a challenge in them for those living in every age. They judge us whether we are Chief Priests or ordinary parishioners. We need to be on the alert in case they find us wanting.