A Meditation on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21: 33-45
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants presents many interpretive difficulties. Is the story about the promises God made to ancient Israel? Is it about Jesus and his conflict with the Jewish religious leaders? Or is it about the futility of violence?

My short answer is “Yes!” The parable is all about that and much more. People have been listening to this parable for close to 2000 years, and many different meanings and points of view have been offered. How then, do we apply such a complicated parable to our own lives?

My approach is guided by two rules. First, is to be faithful to Christ, making sure that other Scripture does not deny what Scripture specifically says about Jesus. Second, is to be faithful to the unity of the Bible, so that the whole combined story of both the Old and New Testaments is congruent with what Scripture says about Jesus.

The other thing that guides me is less of a rule, and more just a way of picturing things. The Biblical past shows a way to understand my own particular circumstances. It is helpful to see my own struggles and blessings mirrored in the Bible, all the while knowing there is built-in to the story of my life (and the Bible) a promise of a glorious future.

When we do this, we are simply following in the footsteps of Jesus’ first disciples. As Jesus steps up to tell a story about someone who planted a vineyard, his listeners immediately hear a similar story that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah told about a vineyard.

“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. [H]e looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” (Isaiah 5: 2, 7b RSV).

The situation that Jesus describes is exactly the same! Certainly, Jesus is telling a story that provokes the “chief priests and the Pharisees,” but at the very same time he is re-telling a very old and continuing story of God’s faithfulness, and humanity’s corresponding unfaithfulness.

Some will not be persuaded. They want historical evidence and documentation. They want the story authenticated. In fact, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (told in all the synoptic Gospels) actually provides a solid Jewish interpretation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. It also shows Jesus to be controversial, and having deeply offended the very people who finally plot his death.

But, in the end Jesus is speaking through the Bible not to detached readers, but to faithful readers. And much the same way as I read a letter from my spouse, to read faithfully is to read carefully and to respond appropriately. How then, do we, as Christians in loving relationship with our Lord, tend the vineyard in such a manner that the resulting harvest is bountiful and worthy of praise?

A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Bestow upon me, O Lord my God, an understanding that knows thee, wisdom in finding thee, a way of life that is pleasing to thee, perseverance that faithfully waits for thee, and confidence that I shall embrace thee at the last. Amen.

Matthew 21: 33-45 Revised Standard Version
33 ¶ “Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.
34 When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit;
35 and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.
37 Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’
39 And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.


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