The story in today’s Gospel (Matthew 21:33-44) is set against the background of the extortion practised in ancient Palestine by hard-nosed absentee landlords against hard-pressed tenant farmers. The landlord in this particular case was a vineyard owner living abroad, an absentee landlord. This was quite a common experience among peasants in Galilee. This owner would have rented the estate to tenant farmers or share-croppers who worked the land in return for either paying him a fee or giving him a percentage of the crop.
Free hold farmers – those who owned and farmed their own land – would have to trade some of their crop to gain other necessities of life. On top of this they’d also have to pay religious tithes and taxes adding up to perhaps 35 or 40 per cent of the crop’s value. So in the end they’d be left with just around 20 per cent of the annual produce to feed their family and livestock. Now if it was like this for those who owned their own land, imagine how much worse it was for tenant farmers who, on top of everything else, had to pay rent as well to the land’s owner …
When the chief priests and elders of Judaism challenge Jesus about his right or authority to preach in the Temple, he tells them a parable about violent tenants. And St Matthew remarks that they knew the story was about them. The First Reading for our Mass today is exactly the passage Jesus was alluding to when he told this story. It’s the prophet Isaiah’s allegory about Israel being a fruitless vineyard. But Jesus then expands it into a story about tenants who beat up and kill the servants sent by the owner to collect the produce. This is a reference to Israel’s violent rejection of the prophets. He then updates it further by having the tenants in the story kill the son of the owner outside of the vineyard, a clear reference to his own imminent death by crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem.
Jesus directs the story against the Jewish religious leaders who have rejected the prophets in the past and are now rejecting him. He presents God as the vineyard owner; the violent tenant farmers are the religious leaders; and the owner’s son who is killed is Jesus. Jesus concludes the parable by saying to them in so many words: ‘You have rejected God’s messengers in the past and now you are rejecting me. But know that, in the words of the Psalm, I am the foundation stone you have rejected but I will become the cornerstone of leading God’s people in producing the harvest he expects’.
That was the story’s immediate meaning when Our Lord told it. But 40 years later, when there was conflict between Judaism and the newly emerging Christian Church, it had taken on an extra emphasis. The judgement is that not just the leadership of Judaism – the Scribes and Pharisees – but Judaism itself has failed to produce the appropriate harvest; and it is being replaced by a new group, led by the leaders of the new Christian Church.
What does the story say to us today?
The immediate application, I think, is that it challenges the leadership of the Church today. Are we failing God’s people as the Scribes and Pharisees failed in Christ’s time? Is our leadership enabling people to produce the harvest God wants? Do the current Church structures hinder or allow everyone to take a full and active part in the ministry of the Church entrusted to it by Christ? Is it the mind of Jesus that well over half the Church’s members are barred from some ministries?
On a parish level, what is the Lord asking of us as a community in this time of pandemic? What structures do we have to adapt or change to carry on the Lord’s work in these difficult days? How do we keep our community active and serving the Lord when we cannot physically meet together?
On an individual level, perhaps the most challenging of all, we might ask: am I producing the harvest in my life that God expects? Does my life bear fruit for others? Am I using to the best of my ability the gifts, talents, resources and opportunities that have come my way? Is there something I can do to be less selfish and more selfless, more compassionate and merciful? Is there, perhaps, one thing in my life that those closest to me wish I would do – or cease doing?
Plenty of food for thought there for all of us … whatever our place in the Church.
Holy Name, Jesmond
4 October 2020