When reading the Scriptures, and especially as we listen to Jesus, context always matters. It is especially important when reading the Gospels to consider the specific audience to whom Jesus addresses. Often it is in knowing the audience that we can more fully understand what Jesus is teaching at that moment.
Father Koch: Jesus gives leaders of the people cause to reflect on what is about to happen
Certainly, the evangelists knew this, which is why they include the details of who was present in their various accounts. While Jesus often addresses large crowds, much of the teaching that the Gospels preserve for us was delivered in much smaller settings, sometimes to only a handful of people.
The Gospel for this 27th Sunday is another well-known parable of Jesus and it can be easy enough to elude over the opening note that Jesus is addressing “[the] chief priests and the elders of the people.”
The setting for this Gospel Immediately follows Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday. We are, therefore, just days before his Passion and Death. At this point everything appears to be going well for Jesus. The crowds have just welcomed him enthusiastically into the city and now he is in the Temple precincts speaking to some of the most influential members of the religious society of the Jews.
Jesus issues a cautious warning through the parable he tells. The owner of the vineyard sees his tenant farmers go into open rebellion against the agents he sends to collect rent from them. Finally, sending his son, the tenants murder him presuming that they will then gain possession of the land themselves. Jesus then opens the conclusion to discussion with them: “They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’”
Jesus delivers both a foreshadowing of what is about to happen to him – the only Son put to death by the treachery of others – but also a foreshadowing of the destruction of the very city and Temple precincts in which they are seated. While likely none of the chief priests or elders were alive to witness the end of Jerusalem some 40 years hence, this warning from Jesus lived on in the memory of his disciples.
This parable of Jesus is instructive and is further understood by his disciples after the Passion events. The vineyard served as an image of the Kingdom of God in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. Likewise, Jesus taps into the history of Israel as he makes clear allusions to the mistreatment of the prophets of the Lord, often at the hands of the chief priests and the elders who also acted in collusion with the king. While many of the ancient prophets suffered at their hands it is Jeremiah who stands as the clearest example of that abuse.
Jesus warns that in the past their ancestors abandoned the covenant, sought personal gain and safety over faithfulness to the Word of God as proclaimed by the prophets. The consequence of their duplicity led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile of the people throughout the Mediterranean world. Now it is their time. They have the choice to either listen to the Word of God in their midst or to reject that Word and to see their city and its magnificent new Temple suffer the same fate as their ancestors 600 years ago.
Jesus then introduces the son to the parable. There are certainly indications throughout the Gospel that “Son of God” language surrounded Jesus. Peter testified to such in his confession earlier at Caesarea Philippi. Did the chief priests and elders understand that language – did they come away thinking that Jesus was calling himself the Son of God? We might never know for sure, but they will accuse him of blasphemy just a few days hence as they drag him before the Roman prefect demanding his execution.
Jesus challenged the chief priests and elders of the people to reflect deeply on their history and traditions, and to pay attention to the prophets – indeed the prophet – among them. As with the totality of the history of Israel, the future of the nation and the covenantal relationship with God is at stake in these coming days.
For us, in our time, we are called and challenged to remain faithful to the covenant the Lord makes with us, and not to reject the Word for the world.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.