What kind of tenants are we?

by May Tam

The allegorical parable in this Sunday's Gospel reading, adapted by Jesus from Isaiah's “Song of the Vineyard” (First Reading), is undoubtedly directed at His opponents (rf Mt 21:45). In Jesus' time, it is common that many vineyard owners were rich absentee landlords who lived in cities away from their properties. The tenant farmers were the ones who tended the vineyard but had to pay rent, taxes and other social dues. And if nature were not cooperative, more than often, they could hardly make ends meet.

However, in the parable, the antagonist is not the landlord but the tenants. It is the landlord who meticulously prepared his vineyard for his tenants to attend. Likewise, in Isaiah, the owner has done all he could for the well being of his vineyard. Whether it is due to greed or frustration that the tenants have been driven to violence; or for any reasons that the vineyard yields wild grapes, justice is on the side of the landlord and the vineyard owner. For in both cases, the tenants and the vineyard do not give their expected dues. But while in Isaiah's allegory, the problem lies with Israel itself (rf Is 5:7); in Jesus' parable, it is with the leadership of Israel.

In the Old Testament, “vineyard” is a common metaphor for God's chosen people and God is the vine grower (rf Is 5:7, 27:2-6; Ps 80:8-16; Jer 2:21; Ez 17:5-10, 19:10-14; Hos 10:1). In the New Testament, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a vineyard and in Jesus' Last Discourse, He addresses Himself as the vine and God is the vine-dresser (rf Mt 20:1-8, 21:33-41; Jn 15 1-7). In Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 1964), “vineyard” is one of the many different images of the Church. She is “a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God . . .That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman” (LG Par 6).

In both the Old and the New Testaments, God often threatens to prune or even uproot the unproductive vine (rf Is 5:5-6; Mt 7:17-20). Before Jesus starts His public ministry, John the Baptist echoes a similar warning to the Jewish people regarding their presumptuous attitude of ancestral tie, “. . . every tree therefore that is not bringing forth good fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:10). Jesus makes it even clearer with the parable, “that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and will be given to a people yielding its fruits” (Mt 21:43). But the demand to produce good fruits is not just for the Jewish people at that time; it is the same for us as of today.

In baptism, we have given our assent to bear witness of who we are, that is, to grow in faith and to manifest this commitment in our daily lives. However, the indelible mark of our baptism does not exempt us from becoming a fallen branch that could be removed. As members of the Church, we should endeavour to produce fruits that can help to build up the Church like offering our time and talents in the various ministries of our parishes, reaching out to the needy and stray members or engaging in charitable services and works of the church etc. Internally, we should strive for the fruits of holiness that St Paul enumerates as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (rf Gal 5:22-23). Whether producing fruits collectively or individually, the Church, as the New Israel is to be in union with Christ, the true vine “who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing” (LG Par 6).

Perhaps we should remember that we are only tenants and the stewardship that we are given will be taken away if we do not tend the vineyard properly and make it fruitful for its owner.