“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce” (Matt. 21:33-34). The tenants “beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” Finally, when the landowner sent his son, the tenants said, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get the inheritance” (Matt. 21:39). The chief priest and the Pharisees perceive that the parable is about themselves, although the targeted audience is broader, including everyone who reads or hears this parable.
We are tenants in a vineyard. God, the owner, has a rightful claim to the fruit of the vineyard. We reject, abuse, and kill emissaries of the landowner who come to collect some of the fruit of the vineyard. We want the vineyard as our own. Stated differently, “This is my life, and no one can make a claim upon it, and I will reject anyone who tries.” In truth, however, we are not the source of our life, nor even of its continuance from one moment to the next. Life is a gift entrusted to us, and we do indeed owe fruits of gratitude and service, which we can never fully repay. On a merely human level, we owe our lives to our parents and others who have supported us, and to nature itself. To God, the ground of all Being, we owe an infinite debt.
We owe a return of fruit not only at the time of the harvest but at any time God may request it. Strikingly, in the parable, the emissaries of the landowner are sent not after the harvest, but “when the time of the fruits came near” (Matt. 21:34). In a sense, God expects fruit even before the fruit is ready because the time of God’s reaping is always NOW. In the strange story of Jesus’s encounter with a fig tree, Jesus curses the tree “because he found nothing on it but leaves” (Matt. 21:19). St. Mark’s version offers this explanation, “for it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:12). On a merely natural level, it is entirely unreasonable to expect fruit out of season. We do not, however, hear the parables of Jesus only on the literal level. We look for strange details and narrative tension. God will reap when God will reap.
What does God want from his beloved vineyard, his pleasant planting, to use words from the prophet Isaiah? To begin, God wants justice, not bloodshed; righteousness, not a cry. God wants a human community in which God is honored, and human beings respected for their inherent dignity. And to secure this hope, God wants some things done, and some things left undone. Things to do: God wants our exclusive worship. “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2). God wants humans, all living creatures, and the earth itself to have a time of rest. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). God wants us to respect and honor our parents and elders. “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12). Things to leave undone: wrongful use of the name of God, murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, coveting your neighbor’s house and household.
Human effort, however earnest, will not bring forth this fruit. God is at work in us and calling us to participate. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations” (Isa. 61:11).
Look It Up: The Ten Commandments.
Think About It: Things done and left undone.