This twenty-first chapter of Matthew opened with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The crowds and even the children were crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David” which caused the chief priests and scribes to be “indignant” (Mt 21:15). Additionally, Jesus cleansed the temple area of money changers and those who had made it into a marketplace, cutting off their monetary benefits from such a setup. Jesus took advantage of the occasion to communicate the central message: be faithful stewards of the souls under your care. This is the setup for Jesus’ parable of the tenants.
The chief priests and the scribes have been given the stewardship of the vineyard full of souls that have been loved into being. God, the landowner, had cared for his vineyard with much attention: He had put “a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower” (Mt 21:33). Jerome interprets the hedge as holy angels to guard what is within; Hilary explains that the wine press is the prophets who proclaim the Word of God through the Spirit to produce a new wine; Jerome describes the tower as the Temple where the presence of God hovers over them. Instead of continuing the loving cultivation started by the landowner, the chief priests and scribes took advantage of their office for personal gains, taking out anyone who had been sent by the landowner to obtain a harvest; “one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned” (Mt 21:35). These produced no fruit and prevented others from taking on this responsibility. Jerome was precise in naming the victims of their actions: “Beat them, as Jeremiah, killed them, as Isaiah, stoned them, as Naboth and Zacharias, whom they slew between the temple and the altar.” God, in his patience sent other servants, but they “treated them in the same way” (Mt 21:36). The landowner, exasperated by their hardness of heart, sent his son, thinking, “They will respect my son” (Mt 21:37). But they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Jesus then asks them, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” (Mt 21:40). They were constrained by logic to give their own condemnation, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give them the produce at the proper times” (Mt 21:41). Jesus confirms this condemnation and declares, “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a person that will produce its fruit” (Mt 21:43).
In the ensuing discourse, Jesus speaks directly of their hypocrisy, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter” (Mt 23:13). They emphasize the letter of the law, but neglect its spirit. Thus Jesus declares, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. But these you should have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt 23:23). Jesus’ judgement reminds us of the words of the psalmist, “For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn” (Ps 51:18-19).
You and I are given this message as a reminder of our vocation: “I have chosen you from the world, says the Lord, to go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). It is also given as a warning for us that “God will not be mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows” (Gal 6:7). If we imitate the seeds of hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees in offering external sacrifices of praise and never reflect deeply on the essence of faith, such as God’s judgment, acceptance of his mercy and striving to live faithfully, then the woes that fall upon them will fall upon us. However, if we reflect upon these things and our conscience is not disturbed, then we can be sure that “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:9).
*Abbot of St. Martin Abbey Lacey, Washington
By FR MARION NGUYEN, OSB *