In this Sunday’s Gospel passage, continuing on from last week, we find Jesus in combat mode. His actions and authority have been questioned by the chief priest and elders of the people and he responds to their challenge, not with an answer but with further questions, posed in the form of parables. Here, he tells the second of three parables (last Sunday, we heard Jesus relate a shorter one, next Sunday will complete the triad). Unlike most parables, these first two at least seem to be easily interpreted – clear in their meaning and in their application.
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel echo those of Isaiah, words we listen to in the first reading this Sunday. Those who heard them as Jesus spoke them in the Temple were familiar with the prophet’s words. They knew to what, or to whom, they refer because Isaiah is clear and unequivocal: Israel is the vineyard that, although tended lovingly by the Lord of hosts, produces only sour grapes. The ‘choice vines’ (Is 5:2) – the House of Israel and the men of Judah – chosen by God and offered God’s care and protection do not respond as God might expect: ‘He expected justice, but found bloodshed, integrity, but only a cry of distress’ (Isaiah 5:7).
As Jesus tells it, the vineyard is not failing. The vineyard owner does not find ‘sour grapes’ (Is 5:2). Rather, the tenants, temporarily put in charge, refuse to give the fruits to the one to whom they rightfully belong and determine to kill those who attempt to collect the harvest for the owner – first, three servants, then a larger group of servants and, finally, his son.
Those listening, the chief priests and the elders, the Jewish leaders, certainly get what Jesus is doing here. He is not just sharing a retelling of Isaiah. Neither is this about avoiding their challenge to him, using a story to divert their attention elsewhere. This tale of a vineyard and its owner is very pointed. They know he is aiming this teaching at them. They know too what the outcome will be for them because Jesus tells them – bluntly.
After the first parable in this episode, Jesus accuses them of obstinacy in their beliefs: ‘you refused to think better of it and believe in’ John the Baptist. Today, they themselves identify what the outcome will be for those in the parable: ‘he will bring those wretches to a wretched end’. Jesus endorses their answer by asserting what the outcome will be for them: ‘the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’
These are chilling words: ‘the kingdom of God will be taken from you’. Those hearing them when Jesus speaks them in the Temple want to arrest him but are afraid to do so. We know that their fear does not ultimately protect Jesus from them. We know that, like the son in the parable, he too will be killed unjustly. Knowing this, we are at risk of distancing ourselves from both the actors in this parable and in this Gospel passage. To do so is a mistake.
We can shake our heads at the hard-headedness or hard-heartedness of those in authority in Jesus’ time and imagine that we are better and would do better. Those same people in authority probably shook their heads at the hard-headedness and hard-heartedness of those who went before them, those against whom Isaiah prophesied. They certainly do not approve of the attitude of the ‘wretches’ in the parable. For those in the Temple that day, the hard realisation dawns – even if only for the briefest of moments – that this is also their attitude. Yet, they choose to continue in their hard-headed and hard-hearted opposition to Jesus.
What about us when we hear Jesus speak such hard-to-digest words? The hard realisation is that this applies to us too. Jesus is addressing to us the same challenge. Like the leaders of Israel, we have a choice. Do we wish to kill the messenger or do we opt to try our best to heed the message and to be among those who will produce the fruits of the kingdom of God?
We can squirm in our seats, feeling the discomfort of recognising our own hard-headedness and hard-heartedness and quickly suppress it, forgetting as soon as we leave the Church or end our time of prayer. Or, we can use that discomfort to prompt us to turn our hearts and minds more towards the tasks of the kingdom of God.
Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers us some guidance and encouragement. Paul exhorts Christians to: ‘fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is good and pure … Keep doing all the things that you learnt from me … and have heard or seen that I do’ and promises that the ‘peace of God … will guard your hearts and your thoughts’.
Are our lives signs of God’s kingdom? Can the good that God the vine-keeper works in and through us be seen? What fruit do we produce? Are we like the wicked tenants, killing all signs of God in our lives, trying to keep the good things for ourselves without acknowledging that it is God who produces and nurtures what, in us, leads to good fruit?
The good news is that this is not a once-only option! We face this choice continually. It is a task to be undertaken throughout our lives and it is never too late to start.
With the psalmist, recognising that we forsake God often, we can pray:
‘God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.’
Eileen O’Connell OP