This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:33–43:
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
“Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
What do we own, and what do we owe? Our readings today touch on the necessity of discerning between the two — what truly “belongs” to us, and what we truly owe to the Creator. But in another way, they speak to a deeper question: do we acknowledge God at all, or do we think we are Him?
Today’s Gospel reading seems straightforward as a parable about the prophets and the Messiah — and it is. Jesus aimed this teaching specifically at the leadership caste of Jerusalem, whose duty it should have been to serve the people and follow the prophets. They were the stewards of the Lord’s chosen people, and yet this parable makes clear that they toiled only for themselves and ignored the Lord.
The long arc of salvation history certainly makes that much clear. The Lord gave the land to the Israelites not just to give them their own territory, but to become a nation of priests to the entire world. Their mission from the Lord was to teach the rest of the world His laws and to bring salvation to all people, or at least the knowledge of salvation. To accomplish this, the Lord worked powerful miracles on behalf of the Israelites, not just for their sake but so that they could command the credibility for this mission.
So it is fair to say, then, that the grant of the Promised Land was not a transfer of ownership but instead a matter of stewardship. However, the Israelites almost from the beginning saw it as their land, from which to vie for worldly power and authority. Rather than act as a nation of priests, they traded for alliances, often allowing idol worship or even engaging in it to increase their wealth and power in the region. The kings rejected the prophets, ignored the Law, and their corrupt regimes eventually crumbled when the Lord refused to intervene. Even their lands were taken, first by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, and later and more finally by the Romans.
It was only in this series of calamities that we discern the correct relationship of stewardship, not ownership. The failure to comprehend that is not just a matter of misunderstanding in Jesus’ parable, but a knowing rejection of the authority of the true Owner. The grasping and vicious tenants of Jesus’ parable know full well what they are doing, but plot all along to take the land from the Owner. They will even kill His Son to complete their theft, all so that they themselves can arrogate His power to themselves.
This is Original Sin. It is the sin of Adam and Eve, who ate the fruit so that they could become masters of the Garden rather than the Lord. In fact, this parable is just a more robust and perhaps a bit more timely version of the Genesis story. The Lord gave the Garden to Adam and Eve, and warned them about transgressing — just as the prophets did with Israel and Judah. Adam and Eve didn’t listen, but instead used their free will to pretend that they were the Lord’s equal or even superior, assuming they owned the place rather than acted as its stewards.
And this is our sin, too, when we lose sight of what we own versus what we owe. We get too caught up in our possessions and our own ambitions and hurts without recognizing that all we have is a gift in the first place. We are not given these gifts strictly for our own purposes alone; we are given these gifts in order to lift each other up and highlight the path to salvation. That is the purpose of the gift by the true Owner.
In our first reading, Isaiah warned what would happen if His vineyard, the House of Israel, did not produce good fruit:
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with 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 overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it. The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!
Isaiah prophesied this less than a century before the fall of Israel to the Assyrians, and two centuries before the fall of Judah to the Babylonians. The prophets had long warned of an eviction of the Israelites for failing to heed the Lord and producing nothing for the mission of salvation to the world. This warning from Jesus to the elders and priests of that time was the final prophecy of destruction of Judah, which would come in less than 40 years.
However, it’s a warning to us as well. It’s not a warning of destruction so much as it is an instruction to recognize the sin within us of idolizing ourselves. We are not the owner, Jesus teaches; we are the ower. We are stewards rather than lords, and our charge is to advance the salvation of the Gospel above all else. That starts by cultivating the gifts we have ourselves, living lives of charity, and reaching out to help others do the same. When we do that, as Paul writes to the Philippians in our second reading today, “then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
May His peace be with all of you today!
The front-page image is “Jesus Among the Doctors”by Paolo Veronese, c. 1560. Currently on display in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.