In today’s Gospel reading, the religious establishment again challenge the authority by which Jesus ministers. He responds with a story, in which a landowner sets up a vineyard, leases it to tenants, and goes abroad. When he sends out his servants at harvest time to collect his produce, the tenants injure and kill them. Sending a second, larger deputation for the purpose results in the same. Finally, in desperation he sends his son and the wicked tenants execute that heir. The chief priests and entourage naturally have to admit that the faithless tenant deserve ultimate punishment.
Jesus is citing and metaphorically applying Isaiah’s depiction of Israel as the Vineyard of God. Through ancient history, the religious establishment have been mistreating and killing those prophets sent by God, the Owner; and, at length God sends his Son as final prophet and he is killed. Let us go beyond the obvious symbolism here and analyze some important things about this tale.
First of all, we may wonder why Jesus is speaking of his own death as some- thing that happened long before? We must remember that this Matthaean Gospel was written forty years after the crucifixion of Christ, by which time that was very much in the past. Second, why is the story saying that Jewish leaders killed the Son when, in fact, he was executed for treason by Roman authorities? Consider that the Jewish Temple has been destroyed by the time Matthew’s text is released. Mainstream Jews see it as a sign that God wants them to move forward from animal sacrifice to the “sacrifice of the human heart,” as a rabbi friend calls it. The Jesus Jews see it as a sign that Jesus’ death is a final blood sacrifice atoning to the Father. From that time, it becomes easier to begin to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from the Roman Empire to the Jewish People — a tragic mistake which has caused the Jews to be falsely labelled as “Christ-killers” through two millenia and, in its culmination, contributed to six million Jews being executed in the Shoah of World War II. Words are indeed powerful. We recognize, in fact, that God does not lie or renege on his promises: his eternal covenant with the Jewish People is alive and well. God is always faithful. We Christians, as Saint Paul says, were grafted onto that vine!
A third aspect of our story is very subtle. When Jesus is depicted quoting from Isaiah, he quotes the text of the Greek Bible used by the early Church, not from the Hebrew Bible universally used by Palestinian rabbis during Jesus’ lifetime. Another clue that we have encountered creative writing!
Taking what we have been reading, then, with a big grain of salt, what is our take-away? The core message is certainly that when God’s People, and especially the leadership, are unfaithful, God does a new thing, raises up fresh leadership willing to take seriously the importance of ensuring an abundant crop from the heavenly vineyard. God responds to the needs of the times with covenant-making: Noah, Abraham, Moses, and forward in time, including the New Covenant in Christ. Remembering that we are not indispensible, we always need to keep committed to God’s work in our time and place. Pandemic challenges us to be creative in doing all that we can do in the present to bring in the abundant harvest God expects.