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The parable of the wicked tenants and “the whole of human salvation”

On the Readings for Sunday, October 4, 2020

(Image: Lasseter Winery/

• Isa 5:1-7
• Psa 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20
• Phil 4:6-9
• Matt 21:33-43

Vineyards are mentioned throughout Scripture, beginning with a description of Noah as the “first tiller of the soil” who planted a vineyard (Gen 9:20). There are dozens of references to vineyards, vines, and wine throughout the Bible. In the ancient Near East wine was a necessity, especially when good drinking water was not easily available.

Thus, vineyards and wine were oft-repeated images of sustenance, life, and well-being. Those in possession of a well-tended vineyard were in possession of life, while those who lost their vineyard through sloth or something else were portrayed as lacking life and a future. The prophets often drew up this when speaking of the covenant and both the curses and the future blessings that God would eventually grant to his people, when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (Amos 9:13).

In the Gospels, the meaning of vineyards is deepened and broadened, especially in the parables of Jesus. “What does the image of the vineyard call to mind?” asked St. John Paul II in a homily in 1997. “Following the Gospel texts, we could say that it represents the whole created cosmos which, through Christ’s coming, becomes God’s property in a special way.”

It seems clear that Jesus, in the parable of the wicked tenets, drew upon Isaiah 5 in addressing the chief priests and the elders. It is a striking parable, not least because of its complexity and how overtly allegorical it is, for the landowner, tenants, servants, and son all represent specific people. The landowner is God, the tenants are the chief priests and other religious leaders, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus himself.

But there is even more to it, a broader and deeper understanding that goes hand and hand with the immediate message to the Jewish religious leaders. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains in the third volume of his masterful commentary, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World (Ignatius Press, 2012), the symbolic language of the parable “contains the whole of human salvation,” echoing the insight of John Paul II.

The parable presents salvation history in four parts. First, it looks back at Creation and the choosing of Israel: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…” Through Israel, God began to reveal himself and his plan of salvation. The second part involved the sending of numerous prophets, including the greatest prophet, Moses, up through John the Baptist: “When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce…” The prophets were men of God’s word, calling the people back to the Law and the covenant, but usually with little success: “But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.” Jesus, of course, strongly condemned the scribes and Pharisees as “sons of those who murdered the prophets” (see Mt 23:29-37).

Third, God sends a final messenger: “Finally, he sent his son to them…” The Incarnation ushers in the final age, in which redemption is offered to everyone through the saving power of the Cross and the witness of the Church. The final part refers to The End and is presented as a question: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” The eschaton will be a time of judgment and clarity, observes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “when the Lord will return visibly to his vineyard, his world, looking for the ripe fruit he has intended it to bear from the beginning of creation.”

A central action is the transference of the Kingdom from Israel to the Church. Here again, there is a broadening and deepening. The Kingdom is broadened to encompass the entire world, and it is deepened in that belonging to it is not a matter of ethnicity but of grace. The life of the family of God is not found in merely human geneologies, but in the gift of Trinitarian life through the Incarnate Son of God.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 5, 2014, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1232 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. The mountains shall drip sweet wine. Sometimes providence takes us on unexpected paths. New York’s Finger Lakes Region is a major wine producer. Matthew, a cultural historian Jew and anomalously tax collector, makes clear the transfer of Kingdom from believers to unbelievers. Unbelievers less exalted in themselves more willing to become believers in spirit and in truth. Catholic and Protestant they became, Jew in expectation of what occurred. Having walked this vineyards’ path for 30 years, friendships came and went. An old vineyard lord, Paul, wife gone mourning the loss befriended me. I offered counsel, continued friendship, he carved me my walking staff. Protestant descended from Bern Switz spent his life producing those wonderful tawny grapes for vintners such as Dr Konstantine Frank. Winery down the road. Russian emigre Catholic German descended from skilled Germans brought to Russia by Catherine the Great, Lutheran converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Konstantine’s skill was wine making, introducing the vinifera method to America. Further along my path a fine winery established by a New York Jew former engineer seeking a different path. He happily shared his story with this priest. Most of the vines on either side of the road belong to an entrepreneur who started a winery at the foot of the hill where I live. He produces an excellent altar wine I as well as this diocese discovered. He stopped his pickup recently interested in a man he’s seen for years walking through his vineyards. He later sent a 1941 Nat Geo article on the FingerLakes vineyards, and on Paul, at whose roadside home the article’s author stayed. Paul died some years past while I was away among the Jicarilla Apache in NM. My thoughts I hope not too distant inspired by today’s article are brought to grapes and wine, the elixir of friendship, of gladdening men’s hearts, portent of that heavenly wine that awaits those I pray brought by providence to live with and love each other.

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