What can we learn from the teaching of “repaying good for evil” ?

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me now sing of my friend, my friend's song concerning his vineyard. My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside; he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press. Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes. Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it. The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!

Philippians 4:6-9

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.

Matthew 21:33-43

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: "Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.' They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?" 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 said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit."

Using allegorical approach has its pros and cons when interpreting the bible; like in today’s Gospel reading when Jesus adapts Isaiah’s “Vineyard Song” (First Reading) for His parable of the Wicked Tenants. Conventional Christian interpretation alludes the six main characters to: God – the landowner, Israel – the vineyard, the Jewish religious leaders – the tenants, the prophets – the landowner’s servants/slaves, Jesus – the son and the Gentiles/Church – the other tenants. Other allegorical interpretations allude those who have been baptized as God’s vineyard, cultivated and nourished by His Word or as the bad tenants whom God trusts, but lose the privilege through sinfulness etc. Different backgrounds and perspectives of the readers at different times give rise to a variety of interpretations. Today, instead of studying the parable through more allegories, I would like to reflect on the teaching of “repaying good for evil”.

Undeniably, the landowner is superbly good. Not only is he benevolent in making everything right for his tenants, he is also incomprehensibly patient with them even when they act viciously toward his servants. With good will and kindness, he even sends his own son as the last resort. Yet the tenants are impenitent and in their wickedness, they repay evil for good and go from bad to worst.

In real life, when we are mistreated by others or being repaid by evil for our good deeds, the idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” seems fair and appropriate. But when Paul says to the Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all” or when Peter in his letter says, “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult . . . that you might inherit a blessing”, what can we understand from these words? (Rm 12:17; 1 Pet 3:9).

As Christians, when we take evil in our hands and retaliate, we are telling God that we can handle it in our own way. Thus we make ourselves the judge and are no longer walking by faith. Instead, we should turn evil over to God and put our trust in His judgment. If we truly believe that God is all-knowing and that He is just, let Him deal with it according to His way and in His time, for He says, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly” (cf Ps 147:6, 69:33, 72:4; Deut 32:35). Jesus takes a step further. Not only are we to abstain from returning evil, He teaches us to repay good for evil: to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us and to pray for those who bring evil upon us (rf Mt 5:44). In this way, not only will we be freed from the sins of hostility and vengeance, it will also enable us to forgive and regain peace. Surely we have suffered, but it is by such that we merit God’s blessings and truly become His children in perfection (rf Mt 5:45-48).

Though at times it may appear that Evil seems to gain an upper hand (like the bad tenants) but that is only for a while. As we know for certain that the tenants are no match for the landowner’s power that can easily overcome them, so Good will definitely triumph in the end. God who is Good itself will not take revenge without giving sufficient time and patience for Evil to return to Good. Let us then remember that God is not without anger, but rather “slow to anger” (Ex 34:6, Nu 14:18, Ps 86:15). So let our pathway of faith be one that “leaves room for the wrath of God” and we ourselves “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rm 12:19, 21).

Posted: October 8, 2017

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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