Gospel:  Matthew 21:33-43


Intimidation, Violence, Retribution.


When is the use of violence justified?


Afghanistan. A hot spot in the world where state-sponsored terrorism intimidated and violated the people's self-determination. Ultimately, the threat and use of international retribution caused a reversal. Refugee populations returned to find their homes and their lives forever changed by the violence unleashed.


Intimidation, violence, retribution. Jesus used images of each to explain the Kingdom of God.


Literal Translation


When JESUS was in the Temple, he said to the chief priests and elders:


33 Listen to another parable. A man was a house owner who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug in it a wine press, and built a tower, and rented it to tenant farmers, and went abroad. 34 When, however, the season of the fruit arrived, he sent his servants to the farmers to take his fruit. 35 And, the farmers took hold of his servants, one indeed they beat, one, however, they killed, one they stoned. 36 Again, he sent servants, more than the first, and they treated them in the same way. 37 Later on, however, he sent his son, saying 'They will respect my son.' 38 But the farmers, seeing the son, said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and we might gain his inheritance.' 39 And, taking hold of him, they threw (him) outside of the vineyard and they killed (him). 40 So, when the master of the vineyard arrives, what will he do to those farmers?"


41 They said to HIM, "The evil men, he will utterly destroy them and the vineyard he will rent to other farmers who will give to him the fruit of their seasons."


42 JESUS said to them, "But did you not ever read in the writings (of the Bible):


'The stone which the builders rejected,
this became the cornerstone.
From the Lord this happened,
and it is marvelous in our eyes'?


43 Because of this, I say to you the Kingdom of God will be taken from you and will be given to a nation producing its fruit."


21:33 "set a hedge...built a tower" In ancient Palestine, vineyards were surrounded by hedges and defended by lookout towers to deter wandering animals and enemies from destroying the crop.


"...and rented it out to tenants." In the time of Jesus, much of the land was owned by foreign landlords who leased it to local farmers. The local farmers would receive a small percentage of the harvest, while the landowner took the rest. Notice the landlord was absent, typical in the time of Jesus. Also notice Jesus used the image of the foreign (i.e., apostate or Gentile) landlord as an image for God the Father. The shock that the image caused must have been overwhelming!


21:34-39 Jesus' audience understood the rebellious nature of the tenant farmers against the absentee owner. Jews who lived in Palestine could not tolerate the notion that their land, the land God promised them in the Torah, was now in the hands of foreigners. What better reason for rebellion. But, in fact, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea was relatively calm. Pilate was a ruthless governor who quickly suppressed rebellion. Hence, the logic of the response in 21:41.


For the past two millennium, Christians have interpreted this parable as a allegory for salvation history. The vineyard represents Israel, the absentee owner represents God, and the tenant farmers represent the corrupt leaders of the nation. God sent prophet after prophet to his people, only to have them rejected by the elite. Finally, God sent his only Son. He, too, is beaten, thrown out of the vineyard (which now represents the city of Jerusalem), and is killed (on Golgotha). When Jesus asked for the punch line to the story, the leaders pronounce their own destruction. On the day of terrible day of Yahweh, God would savagely destroy the leaders and replace them with new ones. He would also replace the nation. The destruction of the Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the spread of the Jewish Diaspora seemed, in many minds, to confirm the truth of the parable.


Is this what Jesus had in mind when he confronted the Temple leaders with this story? Certainly, Matthew reflected salvation history in this parable. However, the years have worn away the shock value Jesus tried to convey. The Kingdom, after all, will come in ways unexpected.


Why would the audience of Jesus (or Matthew) stand aghast when they heard the parable? The answer lay in the economic conditions of Palestine during the life of the Lord. The area had a favorable climate for farming and herding. It was located on both sea and overland trade routes. Such attributes made a Palestine at peace perfect for acquiring wealth. Unfortunately, only the wealthy few could take advantage of this situation, while the poor languished.


During the reign of Herod the Great, Palestine grew annual crop surpluses. Yet much of that food was exported, leaving the area with food shortages. Prices were high with food so scarce. With high prices and high taxes, the many of the poor would sell themselves into indentured servitude in order to buy food for their families.


The conditions for the farmer were no better. Under Roman occupation, much of the farm land in Palestine (especially Galilee) was controlled by foreign owners. These owners would invest only at minimal levels, yet would try to maximize their return. Tenant farmers who rented such lands worked long seasons, only to have the lion's share of the profit collected by the absentee owner. Tenant farmers provided their families only enough food to keep them alive. Abundant crops, food shortages, and absentee ownership. No wonder the populace sympathized with the workers and reviled the foreign owners. The loss of the owners' representatives (or even their kin) would not cause any tears in Palestine.


So, Jesus shocked his audience when he used the images of the hated landowner for God and the violence of the workers for the oppression of the prophets. God created Israel (the vineyard image) and loaned it to the leaders of his kingdom (the tenant farmers). [21:33] Yet, the leaders insisted upon ruling Israel as their own. Anyone who opposed their rule was intimidated or eliminated (the servants of the owner), including God's chosen (the owner's son). [21:34-39] Jesus' question of outcome posed a great irony. The Temple leaders declared their own condemnation ("the bad men in a bad way he will destroy" in 21:41) [21:40-41]


Jesus completed the parable with Psalm 118:22-23 (which reflected Isaiah 28:16 and 53:3). The theme and liturgical use of the psalm made it an "alleluia" song of liberation. (Psalm 118 is a traditional song at the Passover meal.) The Isaiah verses referred to faith and its trials. Placing these passages together attested to the liberating power of faith, even in the face of adversity. God would free his faithful, even against the corruption of its leaders. [21:42]


Jesus saved his greatest shock for last. God's Kingdom would not only be taken from the leaders, a new people would emerge with God's blessing. [21:43] Israel could not claim exclusive rights over its own God. Salvation was not a birthright or a guaranteed passage. No, God was pleased to create a new people, one of sinners and foreigners.


Do you find yourself surprised by the violence of the Kingdom? Or, do you find the stories of the Kingdom, like this parable, stale and distant? Why?


Catechism Themes: Safeguarding the Peace and Avoiding War (CCC 2302-2317)


In the parable of the vine dressers, Jesus proposed the violent will meet with a violent end. Yet, without the anger of populace over injustice and the hatred of foreigners, such violence could not take root. Jesus turned the anger and prejudice of his audience on its head to craft a memorable parable.


The Kingdom of God, however, is one of peace. For Christ himself bore the violence of mankind on the cross in order to unite enemies. In Christ, God and humanity are one. People of all nations are now brothers and sisters. This is a peace not of mutually assured destruction or of a balance of power. This peace concerns respect for others and their goods, free communication between peoples, and the practice of charity. Such peace comes from God, for only in God's grace can we see others as ourselves and act accordingly.


"There can be no peace without justice." Justice demands protection of the weak, the exercise of charity, and respect of individual and societal rights. Those who fight for justice "...bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its death and destruction." (CCC 2306) When all other avenues have been exhausted, however, justice demands the use of violence.


When is the use of violence justified? Individuals and nations have the right to use violence as a means of self-defense. But, there are limitations to this right. If left unchecked, the results of an aggressor's attack would be "...lasting, grave, and certain." All other avenues of resolution have proven to be ineffective. There must be a reasonable chance of success. And, the use of force must be measured; the results of the action taken must not cause a greater evil than the results of the aggressor's attack. (See CCC 2309 for more on the "just war" doctrine.)


Once a nation resorts to violence for a just cause, that nation is bound by certain moral laws. Civilians, wounded soldiers, and prisoners are to be treated humanely. And, an enemy populace must be protected by every reasonable means. The right to self defense never sanctions the "extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority." (CCC 2313)


"Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging between men and nations constantly threaten the peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace..." (CCC 2317)


The root of violence is anger (the desire for revenge) and hatred. How have you fought these vices in your life. How have you pursued peace with others? Peace in society?


While Jesus might have sympathized with the plight of his country's tenant farmers, he used the parable of the vine dressers to rail against their anger and prejudice. By using the themes of intimidation, violence, and retribution, he posited a single notion. The peace of the Kingdom was based upon justice. The Jewish leaders were merely foils for Jesus' moral.


Yes, Christ is the building stone that liberates, creates peace and equity between neighbors. When we touch Christ, we set aside our anger and hatred. We experience what it means to be part of God's new people. Let us work to incorporate all into that new people.


Who challenges my fight against anger and hatred? Pray for that person (or people) as the first step to reconciliation.