27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
The parable of the murderous labourers
1. Opening prayer
Matthew frames the parable of the murderous labourers between two other parables: the one of the two sons (21:28-32) and that of the wedding banquet (22:1-14). All three parables contain a negative reply: that of the son to his father, that of some peasants to the master of the vineyard and that of some invited guests to the king who is celebrating the wedding of his son. All three parables tend to point to one single point, that is, those who, because they have not accepted the preaching and baptism of John, are now unanimous in refusing the final invitation of God in the person of Jesus. The introduction to the first parable in 21:28-33 should also be considered as the introduction to the parable of the murderous labourers: After Jesus had entered the temple precincts, and while he was teaching, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him and said: On what authority do you do these things? Who has given you this power? It is the priestly and secular aristocracy that goes to Jesus when he was in the temple. They are worried by Jesus’ popularity and ask him questions to know two things: what authority he attributes to himself in doing whatever he does and the origin of this authority. In fact the answer to the second question also gives the answer to the first question. The high priests and leaders of the people demand a juridical proof, they forget that the prophets had authority directly from God.
b) The Text:
33 'Listen to another parable. There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard; he fenced it round, dug a winepress in it and built a tower; then he leased it to tenants and went abroad. 34 When vintage time drew near he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his servants, thrashed one, killed another and stoned a third. 36 Next he sent some more servants, this time a larger number, and they dealt with them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them thinking, "They will respect my son." 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, "This is the heir. Come on, let us kill him and take over his inheritance." 39 So they seized him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
We cannot comprehend the word of God unless God himself opens our hearts (Acts 16:14). However, it is up to us to arouse our curiosity by listening and to stop and stand before the Word…
4. An interpretation of the text
a) An invitation to listen:
The parable begins with an invitation to listen: Listen to another parable (v.33). Jesus seems to draw the attention of the leaders of the people to the parable he is about to proclaim. This is an imperative, «listen», which does not exclude a certain menace (Gnilka) if we look at the way the parable ends: « I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit» (v.43). On the other hand, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples without any sign of reproach (Mt 13:18).
What is the explanation of this invitation to listen, which is a little menacing? The answer is to be sought in the economic conditions of Palestine in the 1st century A.D. Big lots of land belonged to liberal foreigners who rented land in groups. The renting agreement provided that part of the harvest would go to the owner, who carried out his right by sending stewards to collect his share. In such a situation one can understand that the feelings of peasants were sorely tried: they felt greatly disheartened and this sometimes led to revolt.
In his parable, Jesus refers to this concrete situation but takes it to a higher level of understanding, that is, the situation becomes a compendium of the story of God and his people. Matthew invites the reader to read the parable in a symbolic sense: behind the “owner” is the figure of God; behind the vineyard is Israel.
b) The careful care of the owner for his vineyard (v.33):
First there is the initiative of an owner who plants a vineyard. Matthew uses five verbs to describe this attention and care: planted... fenced... dug... built... leased. After he had planted the vineyard, the owner leases it to those concerned and then goes abroad.
c) The many attempts of the owner to retrieve the fruits of the vineyard (vv.34-36):
In the second scene, the owner twice sends his servants who, charged with the task of retrieving the produce of the vineyard, are ill treated and murdered. This aggressive and violent action is described with three verbs: thrashed... killed... stoned... (v.35). By sending many more servants and by intensifying the ill treatment suffered, Matthew means to allude to the history of the prophets who were also similarly ill treated. We recall some of these: Uriah is killed by a sword (Jer 26:23); Jeremiah was fettered (Jer 20:2); Zachary was stoned (2 Chr 24:21. We may find a resume of this part of history of the prophets in Nehemiah 9:26: «they have killed your prophets...»
d) Finally he sent his son:
The reader is invited to recognise in the son, who is sent “finally”, the one sent by God to whom respect is due and to whom the produce of the vineyard is to be delivered. This is the owner’s last attempt. The term «finally» defines the son as the Messiah. Besides, it is possible that this project of eliminating the son may be modelled on another story from the OT: Joseph’s brothers who say: «Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here!» (Gen 37:20).
The parable reaches its dramatic peak with the outcome of the son’s mission who is killed by the leasing vinedressers so that they may take over the vineyard and usurp the inheritance. Jesus’ fate is set side by side with that of the prophets, but as son and heir, superior to them. Such Christological comparisons may be found in the Letter to the Hebrews, where, however, the superiority of Christ as son and heir of the universe is placed in evidence: «In times past, God spoke in many and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son, whom he made heir of all things…» (vv.1-2).
There is a detail at the end of this parable that we must not overlook: by placing side by side the words, «they threw him out» followed by, «they killed him», Matthew decidedly alludes to the passion of Jesus where he is taken out to be crucified.
e) Leasing the vineyard to other peasants (v.42-43):
The end of the parable confirms the loss of the kingdom of God and the giving of the kingdom to another people capable of bearing fruit, that is, capable of a living an active faith and a practical love. The expressions «I tell you, then...will be taken…and will be given...» show the solemnity of God’s action marking the history of ancient Israel and of the new people.
5. Meditations for ecclesial practice
- The symbol of the vineyard is for us a mirror where we can see reflected the personal and communitarian history of our relationship with God. Today, it is the church, this great vineyard that the Lord cultivates and cares for and that is entrusted to us, the vinedressers (= collaborators), who has the task of continuing the mission started by him. This is certainly a tall order. Nevertheless, as church, we are aware of the tension that exists and that the church may experience between fidelity and infidelity, between refusal and welcoming. This Sunday’s Gospel tells us that, notwithstanding the difficulties and seeming fragility, nothing can stop the love of God for us, not even the elimination of his Son, and, in fact, it is this sacrifice that gains salvation for all.
6. Psalm 80 (79)
The psalmist expresses the desire of every person to be in contact with the hand of God who prepares the soil to plant and transplant his beloved vineyard.
You brought a vine out of Egypt,
The mountains were covered with its shade,
Why have you broken down its fences?
They have thrown it on the fire like dung,
Never again will we turn away from you,
7. Closing prayer
Lord, how many times is love repaid with darkest ingratitude? Nothing is more destructive than to feel betrayed and made a fool of, to know that one has been deceived. Even more difficult is to realise that so many acts of kindness, generosity, openness, tolerance and sincerity, and of commitment to solidarity have come to nothing.
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