On Mt 21:33-43.
‘There was a man, a landowner who planted a vineyard. According to St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave this parable in Jerusalem, in the days following Palm Sunday, the days immediately before his Passion. He is in the Temple, teaching, and the tension in the air is very high indeed. While the Chief Priests and Pharisees are listening, he tells the story of the vineyard owner. No Jews listening could have failed to pick up the allusion to the passage in Isaiah we heard in our first reading. Clearly, in this parable, Jesus is speaking somehow about God and his people Israel.
To us, the reference to himself is also perfectly clear. Jesus is telling the story of his own mission, and of the history of redemption, with a prophecy of his imminent Passion and death. But not all the Jews listening found that so clear. They had already ruled out of the question any idea that Jesus could be the Messiah, God’s Son. In their confident self-righteousness also, they could not imagine themselves as in any way unworthy tenants of the holy land of Israel.
So, along with us, they react to the story with a sense of shocked outrage. The behaviour of those tenants cannot be too strongly condemned. Yes, they should be punished! And so the ones in today’s Gospel who pronounce Judgement are the enemies of Jesus, not Jesus himself.
‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, they say, and lease the vineyard to other tenants, who will deliver the produce to him when the season comes.’ It’s a harsh verdict, but fully justified. So Jesus uses it to turn their own words back on them. They are condemned out of their own mouth.
Now: we easily read this passage as meaning simply that the Jews will kill Jesus, as they killed the prophets who foretold him. Because of this, God will reject the Jews, and instead take the Gentiles, the Church, for his new chosen people. But actually, that interpretation is too simplistic. It’s too comfortable for us, and it contradicts God’s love, and his plan, for his own people, the Jews.
Yes: Jesus certainly told this parable as a stark challenge to the Jews, and a prediction of his own coming death. But on this occasion he left out the second part of the story. But we know very well how it ends, so we can fill in its details with complete confidence. The owner of the vineyard, God the Father, did indeed sent his Son, Jesus, and the wicked tenants did indeed kill him. But the Son did not remain dead. He burst back into life: now invincible, everlasting, divine life. And then, he came back to his vineyard, and reclaimed it for his own. There he found the wicked tenants, now at his mercy. What did he do with them? He offered them, immediately, a free pardon. No: not only that. He offered them, immediately, an everlasting inheritance in his vineyard. And this inheritance was not to be shared out among them, in such a way that the more of them there were, the less each got.
No: each tenant was to inherit the whole vineyard, undiminished, unimpaired, just as the owner had originally designed it to be. The only condition for that astonishing reversal was that they repent of their sins, believe in him and accept his free gift. And so open was that offer to be that anyone at all could take it up. What does Jesus mean then when he says that the Kingdom will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit? We know the answer. Henceforth, God’s favour will no longer be the exclusive possession of the Jews, but will be given now freely to all who will be in Christ: as St Paul would say, Jews first and then the Gentiles. Those of us who have come into that inheritance, as it were from outside, as the gentiles, have no cause at all to feel superior to the original tenants, or too much outraged by their crimes.
All of us, by our sins, have contributed to the crucifixion of Jesus. All of us, in sober fact, whenever we choose to sin, reject God’s Word, treat all his offers of grace with contempt and cast Jesus out of our lives. All of us, in sober fact, deserve a very severe condemnation.
But also – all of us want to repent – that is why we are here now. All of us want to accept God’s free gift in Jesus Christ – want to bear the fruit of the Kingdom. What is this fruit? Surely it is simply eternal life. That is the return God wants to see us bring back to him as a result of his work of creation and redemption. We could give other titles to this desired fruit: salvation, justification, adoption, divination.
But before we finally get there, while still labouring in the vineyard of the Lord, before the time of harvest, we must get on with bearing the fruits of the Spirit listed by St Paul – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness and self -control. Then, as St Paul says in today’s second reading – the God of peace will be with us.