What the Builders Rejected

Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants in the precincts of the temple. The chief priests and elders of the people have demanded to know by what authority he is acting and who gave him this authority. As part of his response, he tells this story.

How the different hearers in the original audience heard the story would have depended on who they were. The common people listening in probably would have sympathized with the tenants. They may have been tenant farmers themselves, struggling to make ends meet under the burden of exorbitant rents and taxes. Here at last was a story in which the rich and powerful finally get what they deserve.

First reading and psalm: Exod. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20Ps. 19

Alternate: Isa. 5:1-7Ps. 80:7-14Phil. 3:4b-14Matt. 21:33-46

The chief priests and elders would have found the story shocking and scandalous. When Jesus pauses and asks them to fill in the ending, they burst out in righteous indignation: “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.”

Then our Lord says something mysterious. Quoting Psalm 118:22, he speaks of a stone rejected by the builders that nonetheless has become a building’s chief cornerstone. Addressing the chief priests and elders directly, he concludes: Therefore the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruits.

With a shock, the chief priests and elders realize that while they had been identifying with the landlord, Jesus was depicting them instead as the wicked tenants! Suddenly, the symbolism becomes clear. The landlord is God; the vineyard is Israel; the messengers are God’s prophets; and the landowner’s son is Jesus himself. In pronouncing doom upon the wicked tenants, the chief priests and elders have unwittingly pronounced doom upon themselves. No wonder they want to arrest him!

The parable also contains a prophecy of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The casting out and killing of the landowner’s son prefigures Jesus being crucified outside the city walls. The meaning of the mysterious saying about the rejected stone becoming the chief cornerstone becomes clearer when we realize that the Hebrew for stone, eben, closely resembles the Hebrew for son, ben. In the very temple precincts, our Lord is saying that his own rejection and death will not be the end: somehow he will return and become the foundation of a new spiritual temple replacing this temple made of stones.

The danger is that we Christians have been tempted to give this parable a triumphalist and frankly anti-Jewish interpretation, identifying Israel as the wicked tenants from whom God has taken away the kingdom, and identifying ourselves as the good tenants who have taken Israel’s place. Apart from the false implication that God has rejected Israel, such a reading makes the same mistake as did the chief priests and elders who first heard the story. It fails to recognize that the story is directed as a warning to us. We’re just as capable of being wicked tenants as the chief priests and elders to whom the parable was first told. And the vineyard can just as easily be taken away from us if we fail to render to God the fruits that are his due.

Look It Up
Compare the Parable of the Vineyard in today’s Gospel with the Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. What elements do the two uses of the vineyard image have in common? How do they differ?

Think About It
On what false assumptions did the wicked tenants base their decision to seize the vineyard for themselves?

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