Jesus offers us another parable in today’s Gospel (Mt 21:33-43). Rather than pointing to the final reckoning, as many of them do, this is more of a historical parable, perhaps even an allegory. It refers to the past as well as to Jesus’ immediate future, that is, his crucifixion and death. It is sort of a brief overview of salvation history, which means it’s about what God has done for his people and how poorly his people have responded. This theme occurs several times in the psalms and often in the prophets as well. Since it’s about the goodness of God and the badness of his people, we ought to pay attention, since it is not irrelevant to the present day, because little has changed on that point over the centuries.
The parable is about a vineyard and those who were entrusted with it. This image is common in the Old Testament, and we’ll get back to that later. For now let us note that the owner of the vineyard sought to collect his share of the produce by sending his representatives, that is, his servants, to the tenants of the vineyard. But they beat or killed or otherwise shamefully treated the owner’s servants. Finally, the owner sent his son, hoping that this would inspire a little respect and obedience in the tenants, but they killed his son, too, casting him out of the vineyard. So the only thing left for the owner to do was to punish the tenants and give the vineyard to those who would faithfully care for it and give the owner his due.
The elements of the allegory are fairly clear. God is the owner of the vineyard, which represents Israel as such, and the tenants are the religious and political leaders of the nation. The Lord sent prophets to them to require of them the fruits of their stewardship, but as we know from history, most of the prophets were rejected and/or killed. So God sent his Son in the flesh as a last resort, to see if He could still salvage some fruit from his vineyard. But the leaders would have none of it and they rejected Christ, too, and killed Him. Jesus suddenly changes the metaphor by quoting from Psalm 117(118): “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Finally, Jesus makes the application to his listeners (of whom it is said a few verses later that “they perceived he was speaking about them”): “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” It’s unavoidable in this case to acknowledge that those who had been guardians of the Lord’s vineyard for many centuries were suddenly going to be relieved of their duties and hence their privileges. Jesus didn’t intentionally come to take away the vineyard from the Jews—rather the opposite: He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in Himself and inaugurate a new and everlasting covenant, one which not only would confirm and bless the chosen people as such, but that would also expand the People of God to include anyone who would believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
But what in fact happened was that the contemporary tenants of the vineyard rejected the Son and killed Him. In his mercy, He still offered forgiveness and a chance at salvation through faith and grace. Many of the Jews believed, but many more didn’t. So it would henceforth be the followers of Christ who were entrusted with producing the fruits of the vineyard. This is the thing the Lord did that was marvelous in our eyes: the one who was rejected turned out to be the One on whom hinged the entire divine plan of salvation.
Now let’s take a look at the image of the vine and the vineyard, and by extension, the fruit tree as well. These images abound in the Scriptures, often with various shades of meaning. There’s a song in the prophet Isaiah about the vine that God planted, which was his chosen people (5:1-7). Here, despite all that God had done for it (as we heard also in today’s parable), it yielded sour grapes instead of sweet. “What more could I have done,” lamented the Lord, “that I had not done?” And so this vineyard too, was destroyed, but in the prophet it referred to invasions and havoc wrought by foreign nations.
In that case God was blaming the people for failing to do his will. In Psalm 79(80), the vineyard is in trouble again, only this time the psalmist, as he is wont to do at times, is reproaching God for not protecting his vineyard, which is being ravaged by enemies. The psalmist gives a bit of salvation history himself and begs God to make good on all his promises to bless and protect his people.
In the Gospel of John, it is not the people but Jesus Himself who is the vine, and we are the branches, yet the Lord still seems to want to keep that image of the vine and its fruit alive.
Finally (all this is just a sampling), there’s an incident with a fig tree that bears upon all we are talking about concerning vines and vineyards. It happened just before Jesus told the parable of the tenants of the vineyard, so perhaps St Matthew is trying to get us to notice the connection. Jesus came up to a fig tree on his path shortly before he returned to the temple. He found no fruit on it, only leaves, so He cursed it so that it would never bear fruit again. Now Jesus didn’t have anything against fig trees, but he did it as a warning. He was teaching them first about the power of faith—since He said his disciples could do the same if they had enough of it—but the power of faith was precisely that which differentiated the crusty old tenants of the vineyard from those to whom the vineyard would eventually be given.
What are we to make of all these images of vines and trees, since they seem to be an important metaphor God has used to communicate his will? In a practical sense, it all comes down to this: we have to bear spiritual fruit (see Gal. 5:22-23), and if we don’t, there will be severe consequences. In Isaiah fruitlessness was rewarded with destruction; the fig tree was cursed and rendered permanently barren; the branches of the vine that do not bear fruit are cut off and burned; the vineyard is taken away from those to whom it was entrusted and given to others.
It’s easy enough for us to look back and say, “Well, the Lord has taken away the vineyard from the unfaithful Jews and given it to the Christians, who are now his chosen people.” But let’s not get complacent or overconfident. Even a cursory look at the history of the Church will reveal manifest infidelity and evildoing on the part of many of those who were (and are) entrusted with the Lord’s vineyard. Even though there will be no more new covenants, there’s no guarantee that the Church will not be ravaged by enemies as a punishment for her lack of sufficient fruit to please the Lord.
We ought to remember what St Paul said about that very issue. He used the image of an olive tree instead of a grapevine, but the message is still the same: “If some of the branches were broken off [that is, those Jews who did not accept Christ as Messiah], and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast… Remember, it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you… They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (Rom. 11:17-21).
The tenants of the vineyard will always have a great responsibility, and God will always have the right to expect us to bear much fruit. For as He said about the vine in Isaiah, He has done his part, all that could be done for the Church, for us. The grace necessary for bearing fruit has been given; it is up to us to respond wholeheartedly, to labor diligently, to produce that which God desires and expects from us.
He will send his messengers from time to time, to check on the progress of the vines. Here I’m not talking so much about the Church as such but each of us as individual members of Christ, as individual vines, as it were, in the vineyard. For we don’t all have responsibility for the whole Church, but we do have responsibility for ourselves and for whomever the Lord has entrusted to our care and our prayer. Anyway, these “messengers” are his words from the Scriptures, the voice of our conscience, the persons and events that form the context and experience of our lives. We have to be listening for the word of God; we have to be willing to let Him make an inspection of our little vineyard from time to time, in whatever way He chooses. We don’t want to be another statistic in that lamentable recounting of the history of God’s dealing with his people which all too often consists, as I said at the beginning, of God’s faithfulness and his people’s unfaithfulness.
There will at last come a time when it is, in a definitive way, the “season of fruit,” and God will send not messengers but his only Son, for the final harvest. This will be the last and definitive sending of the Son to the vineyard. The angels who accompany him cannot be beaten or killed like the prophets of old, and no one will any longer be able to plot the death of the Son, the Heir. For He will come in all the power and glory of the Father, and He will gather to Himself all those who were faithful to Him, even at great cost. To these He will give the Kingdom of Heaven, which they will tend in joy, drinking the spiritual wine of gladness forever. Those who are unfaithful will be banished from this joyful vineyard, and they can have their sour grapes as they reflect forever on the folly of their rebellion and disobedience.
So, whether the image be grapevine or fig tree or olive tree, let us strive to bear much fruit for God and thus prepare ourselves well for the Kingdom of Heaven. As Jesus said when talking about the vine and the branches: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love… These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn. 15:8-11).