A reflection by Fr. Frank Hegel, SFM, on Matthew 21.33-43
The Gospel today is another in a series of parables. It is in reality an allegory in which every element of the story is accounted for. There are no dangling threads to permit ambiguous interpretations. While it is easy to see what Jesus is telling his listeners, imagine how revolutionary this image is. The people of Israel knew the image of the vineyard referred to themselves. They were familiar with the prophets (“servants” in the story) and their being rejected and killed. The owner then sends his Son (Jesus) whom the “tenants” (the religious leaders) plot to put to death also.
The key to the story is in the question Jesus puts at the end, “What will the owner do?” His listeners provide the answer, “He will hand over the vineyard to others who will bring forth fruit in proper time.” So, what is rejected will endure. The foundation stone is the long lasting love of God.
There may be a temptation, and in fact there has been in our Christian history, to interpret this passage as indicating that Christianity is superior to and supersedes Judaism. This is a dangerous and incorrect understanding of who Jesus was and is. A very important truth here is that God’s love for and covenant with the Jewish people has not been taken away or replaced by God’s love for those following Jesus. This is the teaching of the church. Matthew presents Jesus as sent to the people of Israel, the Jews, to call them back to their original experiences of God’s saving love and formation of them as God’s chosen people. The people of Israel and the people of Christianity are both reminded of just who they are in God’s eyes and how they are to respond.
Today’s parable is not just meant for the Jews of Jesus’ time. It is meant for us as well. The response given to the owner’s question in former times is similar to our own response today.
Just look at the area of social justice, for example. For over a hundred years, beginning with Pope Leo XIII, we have had a series of pontiffs who have elaborated a social teaching which still remains to be put into practice. For the most part, it remains ignored and is marginalized, applied by a very few. Thus the fruits that God expects out of his vineyard – like solidarity, justice and peace – go wanting. The option for the poor is given lip service, while the opulence of a select few increases. We continue to assassinate the Son through our indifference and participation in the “culture of death” which surrounds us.
We need to admit that we have a certain resistance to accept our proper human image. We are the vine, the vineyard created for a just relationship with the Planter. Has our image of ourselves grown larger than a vineyard? Has the image of the owner become irrelevant in our lives? If God seems to be absent from our lives we have to ask ourselves if it isn’t due to us excluding him from our lives. Is our secular attitude crowding God out of our lives?