“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
This Sunday’s first reading, taken by Isaiah 5: 1-7, is a masterpiece and introduces the parable of Jesus who speaks of the vineyard and tells us that the punishment of God is in order to convert and not to destroy. This prophet of the Old Testament uses the allegory of the vineyard to describe the story of the people of Israel when they betray the love of God who had chosen them as the people elected to announce that He had not forgotten humanity and to give flesh to the Son of God.
This story of infidelity – Isaiah says – cannot go on forever. God’s patience has a limit and there will be a judgment (5.3). God expected fine grapes, and instead got poor grapes (5.2). Without metaphors: he expected justice and there was oppression, he expected righteousness and here is dishonesty (5: 7). At this point there is nothing but punishment: the vine will fall in ruin and will no longer be cultivated and brambles and blackthorns will grow. But God’s punishment is not forever.
The parable we are presented with today is the third in a line of three parables to be found in Matthew’s Gospel, which concern themselves with vineyards. It is no mistake that Jesus often uses the vineyard as a symbol of the Kingdom of God. There certainly are many parallels between a vineyard and the Kingdom. Maintaining a vineyard is hard work and it takes equally hard work to enter the Kingdom of God, but the hard work of planting, pruning and harvesting the vines and then pressing the grapes eventually leads to the production of wonderful wine which brings joy to the heart. We can see how his is a very appropriate parallel for the hard work which ultimately leads to the unsurpassable joy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. The parable for today is the most direct of the three parables about vineyards.
It comes closest to describing the actual situation of Jesus who is represented by the son of the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are clearly understood to be the Chief Priests and Elders who have usurped the rights of the owner. And the prophets are the servants who are beaten up and kicked out by the tenants. Jesus warns the priests and elders that the vineyard is about to be taken from them but they ignore his words and carry on with their distorted beliefs and twisted actions, which eventually end up with them putting to death the Son of God. But Jesus warns them that the stone, which the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone. Jesus whom they dismissed as someone of no consequence turns out to be the very stone upon which God chooses to build his Church.
The true vine is Jesus Christ, the son of the Lord of the vineyard. The grace of God bears its plenitude of fruit in him. Jesus saves us from destruction – the harsh destiny of the wicked, abusive tenants in the old vineyard. By his sacrificial obedience to the Father’s saving will, the “Song of the Vineyard” is transformed from a tone of reproach to an exultant song of praise and thanksgiving. United with Christ, the Church exults in the fruitful harvest of “life in the Spirit” that the “new vineyard” produces.
The Lord’s vineyard at present is the Church, and we Christians are the tenants from whom God expects fruits of righteousness. The parable warns us that if we refuse to reform our lives, to become productive, we, too, could be replaced as the old Israel was replaced by the “new” Israel. We cease being either God’s vineyard or the tenants of God’s vineyard when we stop relating to others as loving servants. In the parable, the rent the tenants refuse to pay stands for the relationship with God and with all the people of Israel, which the religious leaders refuse to cultivate. This means that before anything else, God checks on how well we are fulfilling our responsibilities to each other as children of God. The parable teaches that instead of glorying in our privileges and Christian heritage, we are called to deeds of love, including bearing personal and corporate witness that invites others into God’s kingdom.
The parable has several messages. It tells of God’s trust in men. The owner of the vineyard entrusted it to the cultivators. He did not even stand over them to exercise a police-like supervision. He went away and left them with their task. God pays men the compliment of entrusting them with his work. Every task we receive is a task given us to do by God.
It tells of God’s patience. The master sent messenger after messenger. He did not come with sudden vengeance when one messenger had been abused and ill-treated. He gave the cultivators chance after chance to respond to his appeal. God bears with men in all their sinning and will not cast them off.
It tells of God’s judgment. In the end the master of the vineyard took the vineyard from the cultivators and gave it to others. God’s sternest judgment is when he takes out of our hands the task, which he meant us to do. A man has sunk to his lowest level when he has become useless to God.
It tells of human privilege. The vineyard was equipped with everything ”the hedge, the wine press, the tower” which would make the task of the cultivators easy and enable them to discharge it well. God does not only give us a task to do; he also gives us the means whereby to do it. It tells of human freedom. The master left the cultivators to do the task as they liked. God is not a tyrannical task-master; he is like a wise commander who allocates a task and then trusts a man to do it. It tells of human answerability. To all men come a day of reckoning. We are answerable for the way in which we have carried out the task God gave us to do. It tells of the deliberateness of human sin. The cultivators carry out a deliberate policy of rebellion and disobedience towards the master. Sin is deliberate opposite to God; it is the taking of our own way when we know quite well what the way of God is. It tells of the claim of Jesus. It shows us quite clearly Jesus lifting himself out of the succession of the prophets. Those who come before him were the messengers of God; no one could deny them that honor; but they were servants; he was the Son.
Are we good fruit-producers in the vineyard of the Church? Jesus has given us the Church, and through her everything necessary to make Christians fruit-bearing: i) The Bible to know the will of God. ii) The priesthood to lead the people in God’s ways. iii) The Sacrament of Reconciliation for the remission of sins. iv) The Holy Eucharist as our spiritual food. v) The Sacrament of Confirmation for a dynamic life of Faith. vi) The Sacrament of Matrimony for the sharing of love in the family, the fundamental unit of the Church. vii) Role models in thousands of saints we are expected to make use of these gifts and produce fruits for God.