Matthew 21: 33-43
Fr. John Tran
It is easy to see that the first reading from Isaiah and the gospel of Matthew are intimately related. The theme of a vineyard that goes wrong is evident. The first thing that this shows us is that Jesus is not going off on his own with his own agenda. Rather, Jesus is following the will of his Father who sent him into the world. He is on his Father’s mission, not his own. How do we know this? Because the Father’s will in made known in the Scriptures. This is an important point. The chief priests and the Pharisees cannot accuse him of not living out God’s will. But they could accuse him of bringing the Father’s unconditional love in a form we could understand.
And that is our next point: the first audience this parable was meant for was the chief priests and the Pharisees, since today’s reading is a continuation of the parables begun last Sunday. They did not miss the point that Jesus was casting them in the role of the ungrateful servants who killed, first the servants of the owner, and then killed his very son. Why were they ungrateful? The owner had set up a very fine vineyard with everything that was needed to make a fine harvest and a good living. This is the same scene we have in the reading from Isaiah. In Isaiah, the blame for the failure of the grapes is placed on the vines who symbolized the people of Jerusalem and Judah. This meant that these people had had all the advantages of knowing God’s word and failed to hear it and live it. In the Gospel, Jesus places the blame for not hearing, not on the vines, but on the wicked, ungrateful servants. These servants are the Jewish religious officials, and by extension, the people of Israel who did not listen to Jesus. They wanted to keep their own power, and so were blind and deaf; they could not hear God’s word.
Next, the whole scene painted in the parable checks out with the details of Jesus’ own passion. He is taken hold of, taken out of the city limits of Jerusalem, and then killed. This is almost a prophecy of what those religious leaders would do. But even with this, the parable is open to the vineyard being given over to ‘other tenants’ if they should still at this time change their minds. However, in the verses following the passage quoted today, these leaders plot Jesus arrest.
All of this harsh and bloody story must have sent chills down the backs of Jesus’ unhappy listeners. Who would want to be compared to thieves and murderers? Who wants to be told they are going to loose everything? Even today, after all these years, we can still feel that chill. After all, Jesus is speaking to us also. When he says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you,” he is looking at us too. Do we want to keep our own power at the expense of God’s will?
Jesus message is very clear, but notice that he never shuts the door. He also says that God’s kingdom will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” Are we active in living in such a way as to bring into existence God’s Kingdom? Do we show his face to others?
Luckily, in his Letter to the Philippians today, St. Paul offers some help. He says: Don’t worry; pray and ask God for help; then act honorably, justly, and with a pure heart. Be real in your relations with others and give them the gift of God. If we do, we will taste the sweetness at harvest time; we will imitate Christ, the cornerstone. We, too, can imitate Christ in becoming a cornerstone. The following story of Max Ellerbusch give us a radical example.
In 1978 a man traveled to Cincinnati to attend the funeral of Max Ellerbusch. Max had been like a father to this man for twenty years. Nothing unusual, except that as a 15-year-old this man had taken his mother’s car and struck and killed Max’s 5-year-old son. This was a week before Christmas in 1958. Soon after the accident, a surprised court heard Max ask that charges be dropped. Instead he wanted to give the death-car driver a job and help toward his education. Max did all that and more, virtually adopting the 15-year-old boy into his family. Max shared his home, time and understanding with the troubled youth. We might wonder, “How could Max do that? I could never befriend a wild teenager who had just killed my 5-year-old son. Max must have been a little crazy to go out of his way that much to become like a father for that boy.” But if Max Ellerbusch was a little crazy, so is God. The parable in today’s Gospel describes God as a Landowner Who prepared a beautiful vineyard and gave it to His people to tend. However, His people wanted not just their share of the harvest, but the whole thing. They even abused and killed the prophets God sent to help them. Finally, in a desperate attempt to save His vineyard and His people, God sent His own Son, hoping they would respect and honor Him. Nonetheless, they abused and killed Him too in an effort to seize His inheritance. “ — What a silly story,” we might say. “No landowner in his right mind would risk sending his own son among rebels who had already murdered his messengers. How crazy can you get? Who can believe in a God so dumb?” But that is precisely the point of the parable. Where we would cry for vengeance on the tenants, God chose an alternative – the alternative of unconditional love.