An absentee landowner with slaves to do his bidding is not a very attractive hero for a story, at least not from a 21 st century perspective. The chief priests and elders, Jesus’ audience, make him even less attractive than Jesus may have intended. They complete Jesus’ story by making the landowner a murderer like his tenants.
They also unwittingly condemn themselves as the unworthy tenants who will be supplanted by others, probably others whom they currently despise. Jesus takes up their response and turns it back on them. In Jesus’ summing up, the vineyard becomes God’s empire or reign and the grapes become the fruit of God’s way of being in the world. Whether Jesus intends the landowner to be an image of God remains an open question, especially as it is not Jesus but his opponents who depict the owner as a murderer.
Jesus refashions a story first told by the prophet Isaiah and Matthew reworks Mark’s version of the story from Isaiah. In its present context and form, the story evokes and foreshadows the fate of Jesus, the last in a long line of persecuted prophets and God’s executed son. The careful preparation of the vineyard and the quality of the harvest form the all important subtext.
God’s people can reasonably expect to be safe in the hands of trusted caretakers or ‘tenants’. When the tenants resort to violence, even if they have legitimate demands, they find themselves replaced by more worthy tenants.
The parable continues the theme of last week’s gospel: society’s outcasts are entering God’s arena before the temple authorities. Maybe Matthew is reminding his generation of Christian leaders to handle their sacred responsibilities with the utmost care and attention to the values of God’s reign or they too will find themselves replaced by others.
This gospel story continues to function as a reminder that we are tenants or caretakers, entrusted with the sacred mission of bringing God’s compassionate love to a fractured world. We can do this effectively if we listen to the voices of the prophets in our midst. There is no place in God’s vineyard for the sort of destructive self-interest that persecutes or silences the prophets.