Sunday, October 5, 2014
The parable of the murderous labourers
1. Opening prayer
Lord, this Sunday I wish to pray with one of the most beautiful images of the Old Testament: “do not forsake the vineyard your right hand planted”. Continue to cultivate and enrich it with your favoured love. May your Word in this Sunday's liturgy be hope and consolation for me. May I meditate them and let them resonate in my heart even to the end of my life. May my humanity be the fertile womb wherein the force of your word may sprout.
Matthew frames the parable of the murderous labourers between two other parables: the one of the two sons (21:28-32) and that of the wedding banquet (22:1-14). All three parables contain a negative reply: that of the son to his father, that of some peasants to the master of the vineyard and that of some invited guests to the king who is celebrating the wedding of his son. All three parables tend to point to one single point, that is, those who, because they have not accepted the preaching and baptism of John, are now unanimous in refusing the final invitation of God in the person of Jesus. The introduction to the first parable in 21:28-33 should also be considered as the introduction to the parable of the murderous labourers: After Jesus had entered the temple precincts, and while he was teaching, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him and said: On what authority do you do these things? Who has given you this power? It is the priestly and secular aristocracy that goes to Jesus when he was in the temple. They are worried by Jesus’ popularity and ask him questions to know two things: what authority he attributes to himself in doing whatever he does and the origin of this authority. In fact the answer to the second question also gives the answer to the first question. The high priests and leaders of the people demand a juridical proof, they forget that the prophets had authority directly from God.
b) The Text:
33 'Listen to another parable. There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard; he fenced it round, dug a winepress in it and built a tower; then he leased it to tenants and went abroad. 34 When vintage time drew near he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his servants, thrashed one, killed another and stoned a third. 36 Next he sent some more servants, this time a larger number, and they dealt with them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them thinking, "They will respect my son." 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, "This is the heir. Come on, let us kill him and take over his inheritance." 39 So they seized him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?' 41 They answered, 'He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him at the proper time.' 42 Jesus said to them, 'Have you never read in the scriptures: The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this is the Lord's doing and we marvel at it? 43 'I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.'
3. A moment of prayerful silence
We cannot comprehend the word of God unless God himself opens our hearts (Acts 16:14). However, it is up to us to arouse our curiosity by listening and to stop and stand before the Word…
4. An interpretation of the text
a) An invitation to listen:
The parable begins with an invitation to listen: Listen to another parable (v.33). Jesus seems to draw the attention of the leaders of the people to the parable he is about to proclaim. This is an imperative, «listen», which does not exclude a certain menace (Gnilka) if we look at the way the parable ends: « I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit» (v.43). On the other hand, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples without any sign of reproach (Mt 13:18).
What is the explanation of this invitation to listen, which is a little menacing? The answer is to be sought in the economic conditions of Palestine in the 1st century A.D. Big lots of land belonged to liberal foreigners who rented land in groups. The renting agreement provided that part of the harvest would go to the owner, who carried out his right by sending stewards to collect his share. In such a situation one can understand that the feelings of peasants were sorely tried: they felt greatly disheartened and this sometimes led to revolt.
In his parable, Jesus refers to this concrete situation but takes it to a higher level of understanding, that is, the situation becomes a compendium of the story of God and his people. Matthew invites the reader to read the parable in a symbolic sense: behind the “owner” is the figure of God; behind the vineyard is Israel.
b) The careful care of the owner for his vineyard (v.33):
First there is the initiative of an owner who plants a vineyard. Matthew uses five verbs to describe this attention and care: planted... fenced... dug... built... leased. After he had planted the vineyard, the owner leases it to those concerned and then goes abroad.
c) The many attempts of the owner to retrieve the fruits of the vineyard (vv.34-36):
In the second scene, the owner twice sends his servants who, charged with the task of retrieving the produce of the vineyard, are ill treated and murdered. This aggressive and violent action is described with three verbs: thrashed... killed... stoned... (v.35). By sending many more servants and by intensifying the ill treatment suffered, Matthew means to allude to the history of the prophets who were also similarly ill treated. We recall some of these: Uriah is killed by a sword (Jer 26:23); Jeremiah was fettered (Jer 20:2); Zachary was stoned (2 Chr 24:21. We may find a resume of this part of history of the prophets in Nehemiah 9:26: «they have killed your prophets...»
d) Finally he sent his son:
The reader is invited to recognise in the son, who is sent “finally”, the one sent by God to whom respect is due and to whom the produce of the vineyard is to be delivered. This is the owner’s last attempt. The term «finally» defines the son as the Messiah. Besides, it is possible that this project of eliminating the son may be modelled on another story from the OT: Joseph’s brothers who say: «Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here!» (Gen 37:20).
The parable reaches its dramatic peak with the outcome of the son’s mission who is killed by the leasing vinedressers so that they may take over the vineyard and usurp the inheritance. Jesus’ fate is set side by side with that of the prophets, but as son and heir, superior to them. Such Christological comparisons may be found in the Letter to the Hebrews, where, however, the superiority of Christ as son and heir of the universe is placed in evidence: «In times past, God spoke in many and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son, whom he made heir of all things…» (vv.1-2).
There is a detail at the end of this parable that we must not overlook: by placing side by side the words, «they threw him out» followed by, «they killed him», Matthew decidedly alludes to the passion of Jesus where he is taken out to be crucified.
e) Leasing the vineyard to other peasants (v.42-43):
The end of the parable confirms the loss of the kingdom of God and the giving of the kingdom to another people capable of bearing fruit, that is, capable of a living an active faith and a practical love. The expressions «I tell you, then...will be taken…and will be given...» show the solemnity of God’s action marking the history of ancient Israel and of the new people.
5. Meditations for ecclesial practice
- The symbol of the vineyard is for us a mirror where we can see reflected the personal and communitarian history of our relationship with God. Today, it is the church, this great vineyard that the Lord cultivates and cares for and that is entrusted to us, the vinedressers (= collaborators), who has the task of continuing the mission started by him. This is certainly a tall order. Nevertheless, as church, we are aware of the tension that exists and that the church may experience between fidelity and infidelity, between refusal and welcoming. This Sunday’s Gospel tells us that, notwithstanding the difficulties and seeming fragility, nothing can stop the love of God for us, not even the elimination of his Son, and, in fact, it is this sacrifice that gains salvation for all.
- We are called to stay with Jesus and continue his mission of helping men and women to meet him and to be saved; to struggle every day to contain the forces of evil and fulfil the desire to do good and promote justice.
- As church we are called to learn, after the example of Jesus, to experience conflict and be able to bear difficulties in our commitment to evangelisation.
- Do you believe that trials instruct our hearts? And that difficulties can be an instrument to measure our authenticity and the firmness of our faith?
6. Psalm 80 (79)
The psalmist expresses the desire of every person to be in contact with the hand of God who prepares the soil to plant and transplant his beloved vineyard.
You brought a vine out of Egypt,
to plant it you drove out nations;
you cleared a space for it,
it took root and filled the whole country.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
and the cedars of God with its branches,
its boughs stretched as far as the sea,
its shoots as far as the River.
Why have you broken down its fences?
Every passer-by plucks its grapes,
boars from the forest tear at it,
wild beasts feed on it.
God Sabaoth, come back, we pray,
look down from heaven and see,
visit this vine;
protect what your own hand has planted.
They have thrown it on the fire like dung,
the frown of your rebuke will destroy them.
May your hand protect those at your side,
the child of Adam you have strengthened for yourself!
Never again will we turn away from you,
give us life and we will call upon your name.
God Sabaoth, bring us back,
let your face shine on us and we shall be safe.
7. Closing prayer
Lord, how many times is love repaid with darkest ingratitude? Nothing is more destructive than to feel betrayed and made a fool of, to know that one has been deceived. Even more difficult is to realise that so many acts of kindness, generosity, openness, tolerance and sincerity, and of commitment to solidarity have come to nothing.
Lord, you have experienced the ingratitude of many. You have been patient with those who assailed you. You, who have always been merciful and meek, help us fight our inflexible hardness towards others. With the Psalmist, we too pray, «Do not forsake the vineyard you have planted». After this encounter with your Word, may our prayer become an ever more penetrating plea so that it may touch your heart: «Raise us up again Lord, show us your face and we shall be saved». Lord, we have great need of your mercy and as long as there is the desire in our hearts to seek your face, the way of salvation remains open to us. Amen!