The Lord Jesus spoke this parable: Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matthew 21:33-42)
This is yet another of the parables found in Matthew’s Gospel in which a king/ master/ landowner attempts to settle accounts with his workers. In all of them the ‘master’ of the parable is looking to get what is his due. The master is not portrayed as being unfair, overbearing or wrathful, but wants to receive what is rightfully his. In the above parable, we see the landowner enters into an agreement with some workers who are leasing the land to gain some profit for the labor. However, when the landowner attempts to get what is rightfully his, the workers abuse and kill the landowner’s servants. Amazingly the landowner shows no sign of wrath for this rebellion. First, he sends more servants who are also abused or murdered, then he sends his own son imagining that the workers who don’t respect his servants will respect his won. Instead the workers murder the son as well under the total delusion that the inheritance will be theirs once the son is dead. But note in the parable it is not Jesus who says the landowner will come in wrath to destroy the rebellious workers. That is the statement of those listening to Jesus, and the Gospel lesson suggests it is the answer of those who oppose Jesus. Jesus suggests to them that if you really think God is wrathful and will destroy those who disobey Him or kill His prophets, then why aren’t you following your own vision of God and repenting? Instead Christ’s opponents are plotting to kill Him, even though they believe God is vengeful and wrathful towards those who disobey Him and maltreat His servants. Jesus is challenging them – are you willing to deny that I am serving God? It is a question they are loathsome to answer because they know the masses believe Jesus’ miracles and teachings are a sure sign that He is from God (Matthew 21:46).
We see a similar image of God being portrayed as patient and merciful in several other of the parables in Matthews Gospel:
In Matt 13:24-30, The parable of the man who sowed good seed in his fields but then an enemy came at night and sowed weeds in his fields. Despite the stunning evil done to him, the man does not want his servants to uproot the weeds immediately, lest in so-doing they damage the good plants. The weeds will be destroyed later, but nothing more is said about the enemy who did the evil.
In Matt 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master at the beginning seeks only what is rightfully his, but is unimaginably forgiving and merciful, canceling a ginormous debt. He is no wrathful judge. He only shows anger when the forgiven servant refuses himself to forgive.
In Matt 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers and the vineyard – the master generously pays even those hired at the 11th hour the same as those hired from the first hour. The master never show any sign of wrath, but those hired first are very angry and [perhaps ‘rightfully’] resent the master’s generosity to the late comers.
The parable in Matt 22:1-14, the King’s wedding banquet, starts off in a similar way to the above parables. The king’s servants are abused and killed though they are out inviting people to a wedding banquet! The people’s reaction is totally outrageous, yet the king sends more servants to invite the guests, but only when the second round of servants are murdered and abused does the King become angry at how his servants are treated and he destroys the rebels, but then brings in all kinds of ‘undesirables’ to join his feast.
Even in Matt 25:31-46, the parable of the last judgment, the Son of man does not display unwarranted wrath toward those who are deemed fit for hell. He actually speaks with them and answers their question, and states that though hell wasn’t intended for them, since they refused to show mercy and compassion toward Him, they would now received their just reward. As they gave (or failed to give!), so they got what was their due. Judgment is not based on their sins but only on their failure to be merciful.
Still overall, the parables if they are portraying God to us do not give us the image of sinners in the hands of an angry God. They do not portray a God of wrath who treats His subjects as He wishes because He has power over them. God is plenty merciful and patient, giving everyone plenty of opportunities to show themselves merciful, forgiving, generous, grateful and willing to do His will.
In the writings of the Church Fathers, we encounter a clear idea that the difference between Christians and unbelievers is we Christians are to focus on God in our daily lives and demonstrate our love for God. We keep God before us at all times and aim to please God. When we take our eyes off God to look at the world or what others are doing, then we behave like unbelievers.
The 4th Century (?) monastic and patristic author now called Pseudo-Macarius (‘Pseudo’ because for a long time the writings were credited to St Macarius of Egypt, but it is clear in the writings that the author is from Syria, not Egypt. So now most people believe they are attributed to the wrong person) uses clear imagery about what he thinks non-believers are like. He said those who do not focus on God and who are not concerned with pleasing God are like flour put on a big sieve and shaken and tossed all about. He says when we don’t have God as a focus we become easily shaken by whatever is happening in the world. Just think about all the people who are forever checking their cell phones, computers, and cable news to hear the latest political scandal sound bite from their political enemies. They can’t wait to hear what trash is being dug up, and get totally upset by what they hear. And since they get riled up by every bit of news, they are exactly being shaken and tossed about by the news and the world. Pseudo-Macarius says that is how Satan works. He constantly wants to rile us up and get us distracted and upset by what is going on so that we never pay attention to God.
We believers see the same world as everyone else – including the non-believers. The difference should be that we Christians are permeated by the peace of Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit. We should live as if we have already passed from death to life (John 5:24) and so aren’t distracted by every little bit of news. We should not be tossed about like flour in a sieve, unable to focus on God because we allow ourselves to be distracted by everything around us.
St. Paul says as much in his epistle to the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love. (1 Corinthians 16:13)
We are to be vigilant, with our eyes on God. That will allow us to stand firm in the faith and not be tossed about by every distraction. Then we have to be courageous and strong to do God’s will, rather than allow ourselves to be moved by every distraction which captures our attention or upsets us. “Play the man” is what Paul tells us all. Man up. And he combines that thought with the words, “let all you do be done with love.” We don’t always associate courage with love. It takes courage to hold to one’s moral values, when the world opposes those values. It takes courage and strength to love God and to love neighbor despite all we hear on the news. It takes courage and strength to stand against what the world (and our own mind!) says and to do what Christ tells us – love your enemies. It takes courage and strength in today’s world to do what Christ tells us at the Last Judgment – feed the hungry, welcome the homeless and shelter them, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison.