The parable of the tenant farmers has a crystal clear message and the religious leaders to whom Jesus directed this parable had no problem seeing that he was aiming at them. Much of Matthew’s Gospel is critical of religious leaders because these are the people who will resort to deceit to put Jesus to death.
In the story, Israel is the vineyard and the farmers are the Pharisees and priests of the Jewish nation. The owner wishes the farm to be well run. The tenant farmers not only reject the owner’s messengers but kill his son and heir. What will the owner do, asks Jesus? The Pharisees, leaders who are supposed to be trusted with the care of Israel, know that the owner will take the vineyard away and give it to others.
What lies behind Our Lord’s criticism and what is going on in the behaviour of these religious leaders? Why as so frequently in the past are they unwilling to cooperate with God? This is certainly the story behind so much of the Old Testament. “They did evil in the sight of God”. Why this continual failure and blindness generation after generation by leaders both civil and religious? Why so concerned about specks in others eyes unable to see the planks in their own eyes? We see it clearly throughout human history and we still see it today, however many times we also hear the mantra repeated “this must never happen again” human nature repeats its problems.
Reading this parable, Christians need to remind themselves about two things. Jesus Christ addresses many of his remarks mostly the well to do and religious leaders who supposed they were so well instructed in matters of faith and he calls on them to self realism and repentance. They represent the most difficult aspect of all human life, namely our ability to self deception and hypocrisy. This is sad in anyone but especially in those who aspire to the privilege of religious life or leadership. Our Lord said to the Pharisees, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5; 32.] The issues this parable highlight show up dramatically in those with authority, but exist in us all.
A second confusion is the meaning of sin. People mostly think of moral sin such as the wickedness of child abuse. Today there is a great preoccupation with more and more moral sins. Jesus’ diagnosis is with what lies behind the attitudes of mind and the actions that result which he regards as spiritual sin originating at the core of the self. For Jesus spiritual sin is a refusal to work with God, an atheism which is blind to the laws of God. This is exactly what the tenant farmers committed. Most likely driven by a desire to get their hands on the farm they assumed that without a son and heir, the owner would be forced to surrender the estate and it would be theirs. Murder would achieve their greedy plan. Behind behaviour there is a dysfunction of the soul which has the power to eat away at every human, whatever the creed, culture, age, gender, or ethnicity. None of us are immune from this contamination which attacks us most when we reject the laws of nature and God and even more are unwilling to stand correction or seek forgiveness to turn ourselves around.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal