We have in this Sunday’s Gospel another parable of the Kingdom of God (Mt 21:33-43). This is somewhat different than many others, for it is not primarily eschatological, that is, it is not only about the fulfillment of the Kingdom at the end of time. This one actually looks backward, for the most part, into salvation history, and only hints about the future. So let’s look first at its historical context and meaning, and then at how it speaks to us today of the Kingdom of God.
This parable is basically an allegory. The vineyard is Israel, which association is taken from Old Testament imagery (Is. 5; Ps 79/80, etc), and the tenants are God’s chosen people. God expected his people to fulfill the terms of the covenant He had made with them, that is, He expected them to bear fruit and make an offering of worship and thanksgiving to Him. So God sent his servants, the prophets, to remind the people of their obligations toward God, but the people did to them what the wicked tenants did to the owner’s servants in the parable: they beat and stoned and killed them. The Lord in his mercy sent still more prophets, who were treated the same way.
Finally, the owner of the vineyard sent his son. This might seem foolish, given the fact that everyone else he sent was beaten or killed. But the son represented his father, the owner, the boss, who had the authority to remove the tenants from their position, so he thought, “they will respect my son.” They didn’t respect him, however, and plotted to kill him so as to receive his inheritance. For a long time I did not understand their reasoning. How could they possibly think that if they killed the owner’s son, the owner would make them the heirs of his fortune? According to the laws of the time, this is not so far-fetched. If a man died without any relatives as heirs, his property became unoccupied land that went to the first claimant; the tenants had the first opportunity to claim by occupation. Yet to do that they would have had to kill the owner, too, before he had opportunity to do away with them!
In the allegory, the beloved son is, of course, Jesus Christ, who came after the prophets, the Father’s last resort in calling his people to repentance and fidelity to Him. They killed Him, thinking (in terms of the parable) that the messianic inheritance would be theirs without having to bother with obedience to the Messiah. But it didn’t work that way. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard brought the wicked tenants to a bad end and gave the vineyard to others, who would give Him the good fruit He sought. The message is clear: Jesus ends by saying, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” He cites a passage 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.”
This brings us to the delicate issue of the relationship of Christians and Jews. The saying of Jesus manifestly asserts that what was given and promised to the chosen people, and reiterated by the prophets and finally the Son of God, would be given to others because of the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah. Only a small minority did accept Jesus; the vast majority did not. Yet the development over the centuries of a severe and sometimes even fanatical anti-semitism is not justifiable and is surely displeasing to God. Some of our own prayer services are still sadly marked by this and should be purged of all such hatred and denigration (though it is nearly impossible to get Eastern ecclesiastical authorities to do anything when it comes to liturgical reform).
Their rejection of the Messiah is incontestable, however, and the passage about the rejected cornerstone turns up in several places in the New Testament, a key text for explaining what had happened. In the Acts of the Apostles it is used as a direct accusation against the Jewish authorities: “Jesus Christ… is the stone rejected by you builders, but which has become the cornerstone” (4:10-11). In St Peter’s first letter he uses the passage against unbelievers in general: “for those who do not believe, ‘the very stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” (2:7).
St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein, was a Jew who converted to Catholicism but who never renounced her Jewish identity and heritage. Most Jews who become Christians don’t think of themselves as leaving Judaism for Christianity, but as being fulfilled by Christianity. Christ Himself said He did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. The apostles and the first generation of Christians did not consider themselves as converts to a new religion; they considered themselves Jews who had found and embraced the Messiah.
Anyway, Edith Stein, in commenting on the Stations of the Cross, produced an allegory of her own. In reflecting on the three falls of Christ while carrying his Cross, she said that these correspond to three major tragedies in the history of mankind, the triple fall of humanity. The first fall represented the original sin of Adam and Eve, the second fall represented the rejection of the Messiah by the chosen people, and the third fall represented the falling away of those who bear the name of Christian, that is, the sin, disobedience, and even apostasy of those who are supposed to be the new and worthy tenants of the vineyard.
So we are in no position of superiority to condemn the Jews for their rejection of Christ. Every time we sin we reject Christ as well, and our judgment will be more severe than theirs, because we are supposed to know better.
We should then look at this parable in terms of our own lives and relationship to God. God has made us the new tenants of his vineyard, the Church, yet because we still regard the Old Testament as the word of God, the Church is not in a radical discontinuity with Israel, but rather represents her fulfillment in the mystery of Christ—her Savior, Messiah, and Bridegroom. St Paul calls the Church “the Israel of God,” for Israel is still beloved of God, whether fulfilled in the Church or still sadly waiting for the Messiah who has already come.
The Gospel says that the owner of the vineyard sent his messengers during the “season of fruit” to collect his share. For Christians, it is always the “season of fruit,” because we are called to bear fruit at all times. The fathers interpret Jesus’ cursing the barren fig tree as a judgment on Israel, which failed to bear fruit when the beloved Son came to collect it, even though He came out of season. This is a call for us to be vigilant, for it is the Master, not the servants, who will decide when it is time for harvest, and we are often warned in the Gospel that He will come at a time we least expect.
The Lord sends us many messengers in the meantime: the saints, the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the many and varied graces which call to our hearts like prophetic voices: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Shall we stone or kill the prophets, that is, ignore or reject the invitations of God to repent, to pray and do penance, to forgive and to act charitably, to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow his beloved Son? When St Peter quoted the passage about the rejected cornerstone, he followed it with a related one: “a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall,” and he explains, “they stumble because they disobey the word.”
So let us resolve today to obey the word of God, in every way that it comes to us, and to be ready to offer the spiritual fruit of prayer, sacrifice, and good works, in season and out—for since the Messiah has come it is always the season of fruit; we are always called to be diligent and watchful. The vineyard can be taken away from us as well. St Paul warned the Gentile Christians not to be haughty or complacent, for if the Jews, God’s favorites, were cut off from the vine for their unbelief, then all the more will the latecomer Gentiles be cut off if they become lazy or unfaithful. St Paul fully expected the Jews to come back to Christ before the end—and I’m sure if they do they will be the most fervent of disciples, putting many complacent Christians to shame.
God repeatedly sends his beloved Son to us, in a most precious way in the Holy Eucharist. Let us welcome Him and begin to bear fruit for his glory and for the salvation of his chosen people—of both the Old and New Testaments.