For the third week running we have a parable about a vineyard. Each one of these parables has been aimed against the Jewish Priests, Elders, Scribes and Pharisees who reject Jesus. Like the hired workers in the vineyard, they were envious of the divine generosity. Like the disobedient son of his Father, they professed themselves ready to do God’s will, but in fact they didn’t. And like the vineyard tenants, having rejected and murdered God’s servants the prophets, they were now planning to kill his only Son.
Today’s parable, even more clearly than the others, evokes the song of Isaiah we heard in our first reading. There the vineyard is a figure of Israel. We can understand it also as a figure of God’s blessing on his chosen people, or even as this whole created world, or as the portion of life we have been allotted, given to us as the arena of blessing and salvation. God demands fruits of holiness from his vineyard; not indeed for his own benefit, but only for the benefit of his people. Yet, throughout their history, the Jews responded to the divine gift with disloyalty, and hard-hearted murmuring, and infidelity, and rebellion.
According to Isaiah, a terrible punishment is to come upon the vineyard. That punishment is implicit also in the parable of Jesus. As a matter of historical fact, after the death of Jesus, a calamity befell the Jewish nation at the hands of the Romans, far greater than any that had occurred in Old Testament times. Yet this is not the only or even the chief moral of this parable. For the ways of God are not to be thwarted, and human wickedness cannot turn aside his plans of salvation. On the contrary. So the principal result of the infidelity of the Jewish leaders will be an explosion of grace and blessing. Because of their sin, gentiles and sinners who previously were outside the law will now be brought into God’s Kingdom.
So our parable today is laden with irony. “Let us kill him”, say the tenants, “and take over the inheritance”. Yet killing Jesus is precisely rejecting what he came to give them. For the inheritance offered by God’s Son is not some paltry area of real estate: it’s the gift of divine life; a share in his own Sonship. “If we are Sons,” says St. Paul, “then we are also heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rm 8:17). Similarly: the great aim of the Jewish leaders was to keep the gentiles out of their Kingdom. Yet the gentiles would now be included, precisely as a result of Jesus’ saving death. The stone they had rejected became the head of the corner: Jesus is that stone which, according to the letter to the Ephesians, binds Jews and Gentiles together into one Temple for God (Eph 2:21).
I tell you then, says Jesus, the Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
Wrestling with the apparent harshness of this sentence, St. Paul sternly warns us gentiles not therefore to be proud; not to sit back in self-satisfied judgement on our elder brothers the Jews. We have great cause for humility, for we have inherited such a blessing as we had no right to expect, and could never have deserved. As for the Jews: if their loss has proved so great a gain to the gentiles, cries Paul, how much greater a gain will come when all is restored to them (Rm 11:12)!
Meanwhile, we have the received the mission of producing the fruits of the Kingdom. But in comparison with the Jews of the Old Testament, the stakes for us have been considerably raised. The Jews had only Moses and the prophets to guide them. The owner of the vineyard left his instructions, then went away; for it often seemed to them as if God were absent. But we have Jesus; we have the Holy Spirit; we have the Sacraments of the Church; we have the promise of eternal life. Yet we too can take Jesus, if we want, and cast him out, and attempt to kill him. We can reduce him to a practical irrelevance in our lives; we can banish him from our hearts; we can flagrantly disobey his law.
As for leaders in the Christian Church: throughout history there have been found some who have proved themselves unworthy of their high calling. How terrible it is when, by giving scandal, they lead the little ones astray! Sometimes they have acted in their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 2:21). Sometimes they have been guilty of financial or sexual misconduct. And sometimes they have watered down the wine of the Gospel, or even mingled a few drops of poison in with it, when succumbing to a perennial temptation, they have accommodated themselves to the spirit of their own age.
In this centenary year of Fatima we are reminded that grave warnings of calamity as a result of sin are by no means out of date. Our Lady warned of terrible afflictions for the world, and she did not fail to point even to the ultimate calamity, which is the eternal punishment of hell.
Yet our Lady of Fatima, ever faithful to her divine Son, did not come in the first place to threaten. Her mission, like his, was above all to announce a great blessing, to invite us once again to great intimacy with God, to call us all once again to great holiness. And as with the parable, so in our own day: we may be confident that the purposes of God will not ultimately be frustrated. In spite of all human wickedness, or all human frailty, the vineyard of the Lord will not fail to yield its fruit. The building of the Church will continue to be raised up; God will continue to be served, and loved, and both Gentiles and Jews will continue to be called, and gathered into the Kingdom together.
Our grounds for this hope are based on the pattern of history established by Jesus. First there is sin and death. Then there is resurrection from the dead. Jesus seems to be defeated. But he rises again victorious. He seems to have been killed. Yet this very act of killing brings about the outpouring of his life. So for all its apparent harshness, today’s story does have, will have a happy ending. God’s purposes will be accomplished. And every detail of the story will ultimately be a means for the pouring out of God’s benefits: for our own good, and for his glory.