XXVII Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
For the third successive Sunday, the Gospel gives us a parable linked to the vineyard: it’s the so-called parable of the evil tenants (Mt 21:28-32), which, in Matthew, directly follows that of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32), read last Sunday.
So, a man has a vineyard, of which he takes great care. He leased it to some tenants, so that they might work it, gather the fruit at an appropriate time, and then return it to the owner. It happens, however, that the tenants not only refuse to give him the harvest, but they also violently treat the servants that were sent by the owner to collect what he is owed: one is beaten, one stoned, one killed. The owner, however, is not discouraged and does not stop trusting the tenants: and, in a way that seems absurdly naïve to us, he sends his son thinking that because he is the son, the tenants will in the end respect him.
But it’s not so.
The son’s presence, on the contrary, finally exposes what lives in their heart of hearts: therein lies the pretense to take possession of the vineyard of which they alone are tenants for life.
And they’re thinking about achieving their objective by eliminating the legitimate heir.
What does all this mean? What is the tenants’ problem? Is it “only” greed, covetousness? The problem is not only this, but – as in the other two vineyard parables – the problem is the relationship with the vineyard owner.
The pretense of the tenants is to take possession of the vineyard without remaining in relationship with the owner, of being heirs without being even – and first – sons. Rejecting those who were sent, the tenants in fact reject the owner, and they refuse to consider themselves in a relationship according to which all that is theirs is actually given them. They feel they are the owners of the vineyard, there’s no gift and there’s no one other than themselves.
If we look closely, it’s the same situation of the earlier “vineyard parables”, that of the owner who calls at different hours, and gives everyone the same pay (Mt. 20:1-16). He does it so that all may equally know that in the Kingdom the logic that animates relationships is a logic of gratuitousness and gift, not merit and competition. Only if we enter this perspective of gift can life really belong to us.
Additionally, compared to the first parable there is also violence here. In the first parable mentioned there was only murmuring while here exists its natural outcome, namely, violence done. This must not surprise: whoever goes to work in the vineyard without letting the logic of the owner’s gratuity transform their heart, it risks arriving at these levels of bullying. The servants in the first parable have remained such, and they continue to think conceitedly that they can earn life, to be able to be enough with their work. They still think of being better than others.
Such a logic has the inevitable consequence that, and we are in today’s parable, by persisting in believing to have earned life, one also presumes that he merits the vineyard and no longer needs to receive it. For which, one can – and one must – eliminate one who wishes that you have it as gift.
For which, perhaps, all greed is nothing other than the symptom of a failed relationship with one who gives life gratuitously.
But this is a big deception, because in the logic of the Kingdom all is ours to the extent that we are sons and daughters: “if we are sons, we are also heirs” (cf. Rm 8:17); if we remain in relationship with the Father, all will be given to us extra, and freely (cf. Mt 6:33).
This parable sends us back to Chapter 5 of Isaiah (Is 5:1-7), where the prophet recounts with a parable the history of the difficult relationship between God and Israel. And Israel is compared to a vineyard.
The conclusion of the account of Isaiah is stern: “Now, I will let you know what I am going to do to my vineyard:
Take away its hedge, give it to grazing,
break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but will be overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to rain upon it. (Is 5:5-6).
The Gospel, however, reserves a different end: the refusal of the tenants not only fails to prevent the Lord from carrying out His planned covenant with humanity, but rather becomes the occasion to manifest His excessive love and gift. The refusal of man becomes the space where all the creativity of God is expressed.
And this confirms the paradoxical logic also hidden in the other two vineyard parables, the one in which the last become first: the pagans “are entering” (Mt 21:31) without any merit.