A parable is scary because it has the power to ambush its listener and show him a picture of himself while his defences are down; before he can close his eyes the truth is staring him in the face.
The parable which Nathan tells King David is a prime example. David listens to Nathan’s parable and is outraged by the cruelty of the rich man who takes the poor man’s only lamb and calls for him to be severely punished.
You are that man! says Nathan.
David recognises his crime and repents immediately.
Not so, with the chief priests and the elders of the people in today’s Gospel; their hearts are too stubborn.
But let’s go to the First Reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is singing a song of praise to God. He is singing of the love God has for Israel, his vineyard: My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug the soil, cleared it of stones, and planted choice vines in it. In the middle he built a tower, he dug a press there too. He expected it to yield grapes, but sour grapes were all that it gave.
The words are carefully chosen. God plants his vineyard in the best possible place, not only on a hillside, but on a fertile hillside. He digs the soil, clears it of stones, and then plants choice vines in it. He places a tower in the middle so approaching enemies can be easily spotted, and builds a press in anticipation of the harvest. Isaiah laments: but sour grapes were all that it gave.
After all that God has done for his people they fail him. God is rejected by Israel.
In the Gospel today Jesus tells the same story in a different way: There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard; he fenced it round, dug a winepress in it and built a tower; then he leased it to tenants and went abroad.
There is the same loving care by the landowner for the vineyard and we do well to linger here and dwell on the goodness of God. What could I have done for my vineyard that I have not done?
There is nothing like the misery of rejection; no greater, deeper, more scarring pain than the pain of being unwanted. This pain reaches to the heart of a person and when it begins early in life is almost impossible to heal.
Jesus knew this kind of rejection from the religious leaders and the people and was constantly being hurt by it. Look at him on the hillside weeping. He knew he could have saved Jerusalem but they refused. They would neither dance nor mourn. They rejected him; but he refused to reject them.
St John Vianney used to try to move his people to love one another, to love God, to be faithful to their Mass, to their marriage partner but he couldn’t and he wept. They asked him ‘Why do you cry?’ and he said ‘because you won’t’.
How powerful God must be that he can put up with our rejection of him – hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year, generation after generation!
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?
When the day of justice comes we will be condemned out of our own mouths.
They answered, 'He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him when the season arrives.'
The chief priests and the elders of the people get it exactly right. When it’s not about them they can see the evil rejection for what it really is, and in the objective light of truth and justice they can see the punishment it deserves.
It is now that the parable delivers its coup de grâce: I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
He couldn’t have said it more clearly, ‘You are the tenants!’
And so are we! You and I are tenants of many vineyards.
- The vineyard of your marriage: are you looking after it? Is it bearing proper fruit?
- The vineyard of your family: mother – father; son – daughter?
- The vineyard of this parish: Are we listening to the Word of God, living it, proclaiming it? Are we drawing others to Christ?
- And finally, each one of us is the tenant of a special vineyard called our soul. It is the most important vineyard of all. What condition is it in? Is it bearing fruit?
We had all better know the answer to that question; it’s a matter of life or death. Jesus’ parable ends with a moment of judgment and threat: He will bring those wretches to a wretched end… .
If only the Pharisees and leaders had been ready to allow the parable to convict them of wrongdoing; they could have repented and all would be forgiven. If only we would let the parable convict us.
There’s one thing for sure. I’ll know when it happens by the number of people coming to Confession.