“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter asked Jesus. Jesus answered: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) On another occasion Jesus said: “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.” (Luke 6:29)
Another time Jesus said: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Jesus exhorts us to go beyond what this world sees as the just or fair interchange between people. He is not teaching us the way of the kingdoms of this world but rather the Kingdom of God.
Today he offers us the parable of the unjust tenants. The owner of the vineyard leases his land out to tenant farmers. They are supposed to care for the land, bring forth fruits and then to give some of the proceeds to the owner.
The landowner went to great lengths to prepare the land for his tenants: he “planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.” Seems like he did most of the work then entrusted the care of the vineyard to those tenants.
When harvest time came, he sends servants to collect his share. “But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.” The landowner then sent more servants who were treated the same. Finally, he sends his son who is treated no differently and is killed.
The tenants were thinking: “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.” Jesus then explains that the owner will now exact justice on this group for their crimes and they will be punished.
In the original setting, Jesus tells this parable to the religious leaders of the Jewish people, the children of the covenant. He has been speaking with them and today’s passage follows last week’s.
The underlying critique is that the leaders have failed in their stewardship of the covenant and in their shepherding the flock. The ultimate manifestation of their failure to heed the call for change, repentance and proper leadership is the rejection of Jesus.
The parable invites multiple layers of interpretation. In the parable, the vineyard represents the Kingdom and its citizens, the flock, Israel and eventually the Church.
The owner represents God the Father. The tenants, the leaders of the time. The servants represent the prophets.
The son represents Jesus, the Son. The rejection of the servants and ultimately the son is, by extension, a rejection of the Father who sent them. Jesus is the prophet not accepted in his home, and the “stone rejected by the builders” who has become the cornerstone. Another element is the giving of the vineyard, hence Kingdom, to another group who will care for it and help it grow; new leaders will be chosen to take the place of the corrupt.
Reflecting on the parable invites us to consider different aspects. One focus may be the leadership of the day or even our own leadership which we may exercise in different settings (religious, societal, political, work-related or probably the most common, familial).
Another focus may be the role of God represented by the landowner. From this perspective, the attention is not so much on the “badness” of the tenants but the “goodness” of God. Several attributes of God the Father that might be gleaned from this parable are, but not limited to, the following.
Loving. The owner provided everything the tenants needed to produce fruit. He gave them the land, even planted the vineyard, and the tools to process the fruits. These represent the beneficence of God. He gives us everything we have. The entire world is given to us by God. He wants us to have all that we need and it is good.
Faithful. The landowner and the tenants entered into a covenant; we might use the term contractual relationship. Each party had responsibilities. God is faithful to his responsibilities but the tenants were not. Despite their continual breaking the contract, he remains true or faithful.
Persistent. Despite the horrific and repeated treatment of his servants by the tenants, the landowner does not give up. He wants them to partake of the relationship. He wants them to accept the covenant and to live by it. He keeps trying to get them back. He is persistent because He loves.
Merciful and Just. God’s mercy and justice go hand-in-hand. Certainly, there is an element of mercy in the owners’ repeated attempts to get the tenants to return.
In the end, the tenants will have to come to terms with what they have rejected and what they have done. The owner will call them to task.
At the same time, the allusions to the crucifixion of Jesus cannot fail to remember His death as the ultimate act of mercy: the veil of the Temple torn in two, the lamb sacrificed, and “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Jesus once said: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27)
He also said: “My Father, who has given them [His sheep] to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (John 10:29-30)
In and through Jesus, we know the Father and His love. Jesus offers this parable to the “chief priests and elders of the people” so they might know Him. He does the same for us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103