On the Vineyard and Wicked Tenants

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2019.

It is necessary to have in mind the context in Saint Luke’s gospel in which our loving Lord Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem upon colt, the road upon which He entered covered with garments in honor of Him, and the whole multitude of the disciples rejoicing and praising God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And yet approach the city Jesus wept over its condition—not its physical condition but its spiritual condition: a city made by God for His glory and worship, in a Temple made by God for that same reason.

This is why he then precedes to cleanse the temple, driving out the money-changers with the teaching, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” as it was when Mary His mother and Joseph is guardian found Him at age twelve sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions—if Jesus asks questions then we are to, as well—and all who Him were amazed at His understanding and His answer. And within the religiously collapsing Temple, Jesus taught and yet His authority was questioned by the chief priests and scribes—those, we must remember, were then only nominally religious and had sold out to Roman authority because—well, we know what money and power can do to people. Despite the jostling, Jesus fends off His foes, and then taught the parable.

“A man,” Jesus said, “planted a vineyard.” Although parables usually are to be freely interpreted and lived-with often with multiple meanings within the single parable, in this case we must start with the primary interpretation: that this man symbolizes God and the vineyard symbolizes Israel. These are strong and consistent symbols throughout the Old Testament: in Isaiah, to take but one instance, we hear: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” And we hear similarly in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and the Song of Songs. In this long tradition, God creates a vineyard that He loves. He is sometimes angry at it, but in the end God always restores it. God’s mission with His people is always just that: restoring that, and who, He has made, that we attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Him, to the measure of the stature of fullness of Him.

Who then are the tenants? The word “tenants” suggests those who have a commercial interest in the property, not a personal or religious one. The tenants are described as quite distinct from “servant,” as well as the “beloved son,” and that is very important. Our Lord most immediately wanted to direct His parable against not Israel but those who would destroy it. Israel—God’s vineyard, is fruitful, but hostile tenants are preventing the harvest. And so Jesus says, the man “will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” We have, then, a critique of the corruption of the Temple by Rome and its Jewish collaborators—the chief priests, scribes, and their associates.

This is emphasized by Our Lord’s quoting of Psalm 118: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” This was a Psalm that was sung—all of the Psalms were originally sung, and remain best experienced through singing and chanting—at Passover as a way of rejoicing that Israel, the enslaved people, had become the cornerstone of a nation in covenant with God. Jesus fully stands in solidarity not with political Israel of His day, but religious Israel of His day. As He said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

This is what God is doing when He is doing a “new thing.” God’s actions always have a dual characteristic—creating and restoring. Saint Paul said, “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come,” and yet in becoming a new creation, our personality remains, our uniqueness remains. Paul’s passion, and Mary Magdalene’s passion, were not extinguished when they were called and remade by Jesus, but rather rightly ordered to God. God is always remaking us more into who He created us to be, and Why He created us in the first place, and keeps in alive now.

And yet this dual character of God’s action takes on a poignancy when we think of the suffering that God allows to happen to Paul—who suffered the loss of all things, and let us hear in his words at somewhere a profound existential dread and grieving—what God allowed to happen to many of the apostolic men and women of the early Church—martyred for their love of Jesus—and what God allowed to happened to His Son, Jesus our Lord and Savior. Jesus knows that in the parable, He is the beloved Son, He is the heir—that He will be cast out of the vineyard and killed. Let us, who are soon to enter again into Holy Week and the mysteries of the Sacred Triduum, enter know into the mind of Jesus, telling a parable in which the central character is killed, and knowing it is about Him. And let us hear the final verse of our Psalm in just this way: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed”—our Lord in His passion—“will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves”—our Good Shepherd Jesus, carrying us remade on His shoulders with joy.