Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, whom I had the good fortune of studying under, is fond of wryly saying, “God is in charge of management; I just work in sales.” He means it as a warning against losing a proper sense of our rightful place in the Church and before God. Nearly all of us, when given attention or praise or even responsibility, are tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we should. It’s easy to downplay or even forget that God calls us and redeems us, and only God can perfect and complete the merciful work of redemption.
The chief priests and the elders of the people had lost sight of the fact they were to be servants of God among his people. The parable of the landowner and the wicked tenants addressed them directly. And it indicated the growing tension between Jesus and the religious leaders, which soon led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.
The parable draws upon the imagery of the vineyard, quite familiar both as a part of everyday life and a common metaphor used in the Jewish Scriptures. The rural regions of the Roman Empire were owned mostly by wealthy landowners, who usually lived in cities and had the land worked by tenant farmers — either poor peasants or slaves. But Jesus presented a vineyard owned by a man who not only did much of the work himself, but was also incredibly patient and benevolent. “Observe the great care that the owner took with this place and the extraordinary recalcitrance of the people,” wrote St. John Chrysostom. “He himself did the work the tenants should have done.”
The parable inverts the usual structures of social status and authority, for landowners possessed the legal right to deal harshly with tenants. But the landowner in Jesus’ parable — who, of course, represents God the Father — was not only long-suffering, but almost absurdly so. Jesus drew quite obviously from the well-known passage in Isaiah 5, which presents the house of Israel as “the vineyard of the Lord” and the people of Judah as “his cherished plant.” God, said Isaiah, had done all of the work in the vineyard, from clearing the land to planting the vines to building a watchtower and wine press. “Then he looked for a crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes.”
The people of Israel, in other words, were to be “a people holy to the Lord.” But Israel had repeatedly broken the Law, worshipped false gods and spurned the warnings and exhortations of the prophets, described by Jesus as the servants of the landowner who were beaten, killed, and stoned (see Mt 23:37). The patient landowner sent more servants, who were also violently rejected. He then sent his son, thinking, “They will respect my son.” This seems naïve, but Chrysostom argued that “this is not the language of an ignorant man,” but a statement about “what ought to have been done, that it was their duty to have reverenced him.” The landowner’s remark purposefully revealed the spiritual blindness of the tenants, who believed they were greater than the landowner and entitled to his property.
The allegorical character of the parable had a meaning the religious leaders could not miss. Surely they were outraged by Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God would be given “to a people that will produce its fruit.” That people, the Church, exist because of God’s mercy (1 Pt 2:9-10). We are to humbly work in God’s vineyard, ever mindful of who is the landowner and who is the tenant.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.