The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Ten days into this month we will hear at Mass the parable of the wicked tenants, who at vintage time refuse the landowner his produce, going so far as to beat up and kill his servants and, finally, his son and heir.

While I am no biblical scholar, the story is plainly an allegory for the chief priests’ and pharisees’ own failure to welcome the Son of God and to yield the fruit of true righteousness—they knew that he was speaking about them, we are told—leading to the expansion of the kingdom of God to include the Gentiles (cf. Rom 11:11).

Be that as it may, we cannot conveniently restrict the parable to its historical context. Are we not all fundamentally tenants or stewards of what God has given to us? Our very existence is a gift, a loan, from the Creator. What do you possess that you have not received? Saint Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4. The Lord is God, he made us, we belong to him, sings Psalm 100. He justly expects from us the fruit of a life of faith and charity.

Sadly, as the Catechism points out, “sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it…. It is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become like gods (Gen 3:5).” And indeed this is the great irony the parable masterfully exposes: the adolescent rebelliousness of humanity against God, in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) and who is in fact all loving, out of some illusion that if we wrest ourselves free of dependence upon him we may find happiness on our own terms.

The loving landowner

Notice that the parable begins by describing the landowner’s initiative: he planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Far from being an aloof investor, this man is the prime mover, personally involved right from the get-go, making sure the vineyard is fully equipped before leasing it out.

Additionally, there is nothing that suggests the landowner expected from the tenants an unjust amount. Thus, they had nothing to complain about—they are tenants, not slaves. Had the landowner forcefully dragged them away from their homes and from better jobs, had he given them an unworkable plot and no tools, then those men would have had every right to be angry. On the contrary, they had everything they needed. And as the parable makes clear, the landowner can lease his vineyard to other ­tenants. These men are not the only available farmers. They have been chosen.

Recall, too, that the landowner immediately leaves on a journey. So he is not an overbearing or mean boss. The tenants can arise each morning with the ennobling conviction that the landowner trusts them and has endowed them with freedom. And, as I like to imagine, surely they were free to sample the product every now and then (purely in the interest of quality control, of course).

Foolishly, the men still refuse the landowner what is rightfully his. They want to steal the inheritance, to claim it as their own possession, even though they are already sharing in it—albeit in a subordinate manner—as tenants.

What this means for us

“The tenants do not want to have a master,” Pope Benedict XVI once said, calling them “a mirror of ourselves. We men and women, to whom creation is as it were entrusted for its management, have usurped it. We ourselves want to ­dominate it in the first person and by ourselves. We want unlimited possession of the world and of our own lives. God is in our way.” Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, in his masterful commentary on Matthew, explains how such a tendency does not always mean an outright denial of God. “Few, if any of us,” he says, “would actually take Jesus, cast him out of the vineyard, and kill him. But we have far ­subtler ways of banishing God from the center of our hearts so that we can no longer be burned and transformed by the Fire of Mercy.”

How easy it is, I have to admit, to try to protect myself against a radical and comprehensive docility to God and his plan, to limit what God is allowed to ask from me. “We must eventually come face to face honestly with the great either/or of faith,” Leiva-Merikakis continues: “either I allow God full sway with my person and all my faculties, ­interests, passions, and intentions, or the presence of God in my life and the very thought of God and faith become the ­greatest nuisance and irritant imaginable.”

From rejection to cornerstone

“From the Son’s death springs life,” Pope Benedict went on to say. “A new building is raised, a new vineyard. He who at Cana changed water into wine has transformed his Blood into the wine of true love and thus transforms the wine into his Blood. In the Upper Room he anticipated his death and transformed it into the gift of himself in an act of radical love. His Blood is a gift, it is love, and consequently it is the true wine that the Creator was expecting. In this way, Christ himself became the vine, and this vine always bears good fruit: the presence of his love for us which is indestructible.”

In the end, the precious fruit of love and obedience that the tenants refuse to offer—that we refuse in sin—is found in the shed blood of the Son himself. The rejection and crucifixion of God’s own beloved Son, which manifests in full the “happy fault” the Church sings of in the Easter Exsultet, has won for us the grace to become for all eternity heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17).