As Flann O’Brien, or perhaps Father Ted, might put it, there was a time when Ireland was overrun with absentee landlords. Having been taught about the iniquities that invariably attend this form of ownership and management, one will be a bit troubled at the thought of God as an absentee landlord, as the traditional reading of this parable seems to require. Galilee at the time of Jesus had its share of absentee landlordism, rich Syrians and Egyptians who kept estates there, worked by tenants, and who sent their agents (their slaves as the parable puts it) to receive the profits at the appropriate time.
There are other things that puzzle about this parable. One is the fact that the traditional reading seems to fall a bit too easily into the conclusion that the Jews have blown it and it is time for the Christians to take over (‘it will be taken from you and given to another nation’). One recent commentator says that the interpretation of this text is now crucial in Jewish-Christian relations and one can see why.
A third puzzle to put alongside God as an absentee landlord, and the potential for anti-Semitism, is the strange change Jesus makes in response to the Jewish leaders summary of what the parable means. They take it as a story about an unreliable leadership and regime being replaced by a more reliable leadership and regime, possibly thinking of themselves, and that the settlement between Romans, Herod and the Jewish religious leaders was a better thing than the corrupt kingship which had led to destruction and exile many centuries before.
It is amazing to us that they show no interest in who the son of the parable might be. For Christians hearing it, of course, his appearance is the climax of iniquity in the story and we know exactly who is intended and what imminent events – the death and resurrection of Jesus – are hinted at in this parable.
It is likely though, that the reference to the stone which appears from nowhere – not just the reference to it but the stone itself according to the Book of Daniel – that this is actually the key and the clue to the meaning of the parable.
The chief priests and the elders of the people show no interest in the son. They see the point of the story however: any absentee landlord worthy of the name will very quickly dispose of those wicked tenants and replace them. They say this themselves: ‘he will bring those wicked men to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to tenants who will come up with the goods’.
Then Jesus talks about the stone and it seems like a complete non sequitur. The Hebrew may be some help, for in Hebrew son is ‘ben’ and stone is ‘eben’. But the context is even more helpful. This is a parable told in Jerusalem and not just in Jerusalem but in the Temple. This is a parable told just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple. Things are coming to a climax in the life of Jesus. The stakes are getting higher and he is being quite provocative, baiting the chief priests and the elders with what he is doing and with the justification he is giving for what he is doing.
The kingdom of God – Matthew rarely uses this expression – will be taken from you, Jesus says, and given to a people who will produce its fruit. The kingdom of God is the kingdom spoken of in the Book of Daniel, represented by a stone that comes from God knows where, to crush the earthly kingdoms and replace them with a kingdom that will never end (see Daniel 2). Jesus combines this with texts that refer to a rejected stone that becomes the keystone (see Isaiah 28:16; Job 38:6; Jeremiah 51:26; Psalm 118:22). Apparently the stone the prophets had in mind when they used this expression was not very far away from Jesus as he spoke, for it was the stone that formed the pinnacle of the Temple, a stone cast aside that found its way to the place of greatest honour.
And this perhaps helps us to see how radical and unsettling is the parable of Jesus and his challenge to the Jewish leaders at this moment. It is radical and unsettling and a challenge not just to them but also to us who listen and try to understand what is going on here. The people to whom the kingdom is to be given cannot be simply identified. It is not as simple as saying non-Jews will replace Jews. It is not as simple as saying that one group of Jewish leaders now become followers of Jesus will replace another group of Jewish leaders who refused to become followers of Jesus. That’s the story of the world’s empires and institutions from time immemorial.
But we believe that something radically new is established in what is happening to Jesus and what is happening through Jesus. The early Church quickly finds itself obliged to talk about a new birth (as Jesus had done) and even of a new creation. Jesus himself talked about a different basis of identity and relationship, a family established on the basis of faith in him. The point of the parable, with the strange conclusion about the rejected stone, is that it is not just a change of management that is envisaged, not just emptying the house and filling it with new tenants, but something much deeper. We are to think not just of a new earthly power replacing an old one but of a new kind of power which continually cuts across our established and traditional ways of seeing things, calling us ever on to new life.
Elsewhere in the New Testament we read about a vineyard in which the vines are pruned if they do not bear fruit and we hear Jesus saying things to his disciples about going out and bearing fruit, fruit that will last. That reference to the vine, in John 15, also reminds us of the identification Jesus makes between himself, the vine, and ourselves, the branches. The first reading of today’s Mass is a beautiful poem but perhaps misleads us when we come to think about the parable that echoes it. For it is the whole vine that is destroyed by God according to Isaiah not just the leadership at its head.
And the deepest mystery of these events unfolding in the last days of Jesus’ life is how he becomes Israel, he is Israel, taking on himself, although he is just and innocent, the punishment that Israel’s sins have deserved and ours too. The coming disruption of the community of Israel, played out historically in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple of which there are also echoes in this parable, is first played out in the body of Jesus, destroyed on the cross, but in three days rebuilt. The stone that is rejected has become the corner stone: this is one of the great resurrection texts of the early Church (see Romans 9:32; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7).
As an older but still valuable commentator, C.H.Dodds, puts it, ‘Jesus did regard his own ministry as the culmination of God’s dealings with His people … the guilt of all righteous blood from Abel to Zechariah would fall on that generation’. The climax of iniquity that is the killing of the Son becomes the setting up of the Stone, rejected by men but established by God. The winepress in the vineyard, says Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on this parable, is the altar of sacrifice. We continue to participate in these mysteries of sin and guilt, of redemption and love, as we offer the sacrifice of the Son and pray that through our sharing in it we will bear fruit that is of the kingdom of God.