Twenty-Seventh Sunday In Ordinary Time
Confrontation in Jerusalem between Jesus and high priestly families continues from last Sunday’s gospel. Another vineyard parable, the third one in Matthew’s gospel! A landowner planted a vineyard, enclosed it with a protective hedge, dug a wine press in it, built a watch tower for added protection, rented it to tenants, then left the country. Some comments are in order on individual items that constituted a vineyard in the first Christian century. Gardens and vineyards were often protected by a thorny hedge to keep out predators – both two-legged and four-legged. The wine press or vat consisted of a pair of square or circular pits, often hewn out of the rocky ground. The pit in which the grapes were crushed by the feet of the treaders was higher than the second vat. The two vats were connected by a channel through which the juice flowed from the higher to the lower vat as it oozed through the toes of those treading the grapes. Sometimes large rocks were used to press the grapes, but this method of pressing grapes was not as picturesque and less flavorful than after intimate contact with human feet.
The watch tower may have been no more than a stone hut with a thatch roof, but often it was built higher to have a view of the whole vineyard. Such towers can still be seen in the Holy Land. During the time of the grape harvest and perhaps shortly before the harvest, a watchman would live in this hut or tower to guard against thieves. It is interesting that such towers became biblical metaphors or symbols for human strength and/or beauty, Song of Songs 4:4, the groom sings to the bride, “Your neck is like the tower of David built for an arsenal, etc.” Not advisable as a compliment to a fiancée in our culture! Another example of a tower as a metaphor for feminine beauty, Song of Songs 7:5, “Your neck is like an ivory tower.”
The story accurately depicts a situation of absentee ownership of land and of productive activity in Galilee. Wealthy Romans, in particular, were engaged in this type of farming. They invested in Galilee to generate financial support for themselves while enjoying the social life of the city of Rome or other great cities of the Roman Empire. As the parable continues, harvest time is fast approaching. The absentee owner sent his servants to collect his share of grapes or more likely his share of wine to be sold or shipped by sea in large urns to Rome. The owner had rented out the vineyard to some rough tenants. What did they do to the owner’s servants? “They seized them, beat up one, killed another, and stoned the third. The owner sent more servants, but they got the same treatment. The owner seems not too bright. He decides to send his own son to collect, saying, “They will respect my son.” When they recognized the owner’s son, they said, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him and the vineyard will belong to us.” They did just that and threw his body outside the vineyard.
The parable or puzzle is over, but the story continues. In Matthew’s arrangement of the material for his gospel, Jesus addresses the chief priests and elders (Sadducees), “What will the owner of the vineyard do the wicked tenants? He will put them to death and rent the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the produce at the proper time.” What is Matthew’s intention here? What was he thinking? We can be certain that in the formation of the parable he was thinking about the parable from Isaiah 5:1-7 which constitutes the first reading of this Sunday. Much of the opening language of Matthew’s parable duplicates Isaiah’s parable. Examples: a vineyard, a watchtower, a wine press, the expectation of a harvest.
How does the prophet Isaiah interpret his parable? The owner is the Lord God of Israel. The choice vine he planted in his vineyard is “the house of Israel and the men of Judah.” The choice vine turned wild and produced bitter grapes. What will the Lord God do to his failed vineyard? He will remove its hedge so the beasts can devour it. He will break down its protective wall so it can be trampled. He will make it an unpruned wasteland, choked by briars and thorns. No rain will fall upon it. Matthew, of course, has a different outcome because he has a different purpose. He is writing in the mid-eighties of the first Christian century. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D., in the midst of the Roman-Jewish War. Since Matthew arranges his material to depict Jesus addressing this parable to the chief priests and their supporters, he uses the parable to demonstrate that the Jewish leadership was responsible for the catastrophe – the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the great temple of the Lord.
What specifically is Matthew’s accusation against “the chief priests and elders”? The climactic crime is his description of the fate of the son. The owner of the vineyard, in a last attempt to collect produce, sends his own son, but “they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Matthew intends the owner to be understood as God who sent his Son in a final attempt to gain his people. The servants sent previously were the prophets who were treated as prophets frequently are – even in our day. Significant is Matthew’s note that they “cast the son out of the vineyard,” since Jesus was put to death outside Jerusalem. The new tenants of the vineyard are the Gentiles streaming into the Christian Community in the last third of the first century. Thus the parable and its application are a justification for the Christian proclamation to the Gentiles. At the end, Matthew changes the metaphor from a vineyard to a building. The cornerstone originally rejected by the builders became the cornerstone of the building. Matthew has a final word for those who have ears but do not hear, “Therefore the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”