Column: Vineyard parables often misunderstood

by Father Mike Stubbs

Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time Mt 21: 33-43

A few years ago, I traveled to Europe on vacation. That trip included a visit to Alsace, in eastern France. One day we hiked through vineyard after vineyard. Of course, we had to stop for liquid refreshment, to taste the local production. I decided that I liked visiting vineyards.

For the past few Sundays, by means of parables recounted by Jesus in the Gospel reading, all of us have visited a vineyard. On Sept. 21, Jesus told the parable of the workers, who spent different amounts of time in the vineyard, yet were all paid the same. On Sept. 28, Jesus told the parable of the man who sent his sons out to work in his vineyard. This Sunday, we hear the parable of the absent landlord, who rented his vineyard out to tenants. They abuse and kill his servants, who are trying to collect his share of the crop, and finally even his son.

The vineyard is the common thread that runs through all these parables and links them together. But what is it?

As a fictional location, that vineyard remains anonymous, like the characters who populate it. However, Sunday’s first reading, Is 5:1-7, offers a clue to its identity: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.”

While Isaiah’s statement about the vineyard may offer us a clue to the identity of the vineyard in Jesus’ parables, that does not necessarily mean that it is the answer. Isaiah’s understanding of the vineyard serves as the starting point for Jesus, but he goes beyond it. As Jesus tells his stories about the vineyard, he develops his own understanding of it. Through Jesus, the meaning of the vineyard grows as luxuriantly as any real grapevine.

In Jesus’ stories, the vineyard no longer is defined as the exclusive preserve of any one ethnic group. It becomes the arena of operations for God’s work, the place where human beings collaborate with God to bring about God’s reign on earth.

That broadened understanding reaches its high point in this Sunday’s Gospel, which concludes: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

Some Christians interpret this statement as proposing that God will replace Israel with the church. This theory is called “supersession.” It claims that since Israel has failed in its mission, God has turned to the Gentiles, formed into the “new” Israel, the church.

The Catholic Church rejects this theory as overly simplistic. The theory ignores the continuing covenant between Israel and God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 839). And in the case of the parable from this Sunday’s Gospel, the supersession theory relies upon a serious misunderstanding.

Jesus is challenging the chief priests and elders of the people through this parable. They are identified with the tenants who will be rejected by the landowner when he returns. The chief priests and elders of the people will lose their authority and be replaced by other leaders. The parable speaks to a change in leadership, not the abandonment of a people.

Nonetheless, the parables of Jesus open the door to the Gentiles to also enter into the vineyard, to share in God’s work. They form part of the proclamation of the good news, which is meant for all. We also can work in the vineyard of the Lord.

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