Here’s What Today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, Is All About

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of Flemish Renaissance painter Marten van Valkenborch

Marten van Valkenborch, “Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen,” ca. 1680-1690
Marten van Valkenborch, “Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen,” ca. 1680-1690 (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, we took a parable visit to a father’s vineyard, in which he invited two sons to work. One refused, only to change his mind; the other pretended obedience, only to slack off. 

We saw how that parable illustrated the tension in the Israel of Jesus’s day between the self-righteous Pharisees, convinced of their religious credentials, and the “public sinners” who sometimes heard the call to conversion and “changed their minds” to go into the Father’s vineyard.

This week, we visit another vineyard with another son. This vineyard has been sublet to tenant farmers, whose obligation it is to turn over the harvest to the vineyard owner. But those tenants have gotten used to their digs, feeling more at home there than its owner. And they have no intention of honoring their obligations.

The owner bought and invested in a vineyard. Maybe it contained no buried treasure, but the owner was ready to put money and sweat equity into it. He improved it: he planted grapes; he delineated his property with a hedge; he built infrastructure (a watchtower and a winepress) to protect and process his harvest. And he hires workers.

The farm workers know a good thing when they see it. So, when this fertile field improved by its owner yields its harvest, it engenders a conspiracy. Those workers know the owner will come collecting. So, when the owner’s servants appear to collect, “they beat one, another they killed, and a third one they stoned.” 

In a world in which relationships were everything, the owner dispatches his son. He reasons that their relationship will protect the boy: “they will respect” him. 

They reason otherwise.

“This is the heir. Let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.” So, they seize him, take him out of the vineyard, and kill him.

Audacious and presumptuous. What’s the old man gonna do? Who’s he gonna send now? Are there any police to enforce his rights? Will the prosecutor want to bring charges against such poor and deprived tenants? (If Jesus were really the “socialist” he is often caricatured to be, wouldn’t he have just turned over the vineyard to these folks?)

The Gospel’s answer is clear: “The owner … will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard out to others …”

As today’s Psalm response tells us, “the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel,” and today’s Gospel is a commentary on its current tenants. The owner of the field is God. The vineyard is Israel. The tenant farmers are Israel’s politico-religious establishment which, while priding itself that “we are children of Abraham,” had strayed far from true religion. The abused and murdered servants dispatched on the owner’s behalf are the prophets, who were generally ignored and abused by that establishment. Just ask Isaiah, whose prophetic vision of this vineyard and its faithless tenants is today’s First Reading. 

The son is Jesus. Piety would have afforded him the honor due him because of to whom he was related. But, instead, they seize him (as in Gethsemane, with clubs and torches), take him out of the vineyard (Calvary was outside of Jerusalem, at the city gates), and kill him. There’s also a reason this is a vineyard, and not just any kind of farmland. Apart from the prophecy of Isaiah about the trampled vineyard in today’s reading, there is also Isaiah’s prophecy of him who treads the winepress alone (63:2-4).

The impiety of Israel’s politico-religious establishment leads to the expansion of God’s Covenant, now not just with Israel but all humanity, an expansion already augured by Jonah.

Lest we grow complacent, like Israel’s politico-religious establishment, let us not fail to ask ourselves whether we will give the owner “the produce at the proper times.” That’s true of our lives individually and communally. When we examine the moral mire in which the Church finds herself, preventing her holiness from shining forth to a world in a time when it is desperately needed, we might also examine our consciences about the fidelity of our lease on the vineyard.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Flemish Renaissance painter Marten van Valkenborch (1535-1612). He divided his time between what is today Belgium (Leuven, Antwerp) and southwest Germany (Frankfurt). His best-known painting is probably “Tower of Babel.”

“The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen,” an oil painting is a relatively large (almost 3 feet by 4 feet) oil painting, dating from 1580-90, now held by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. 

The entire parable is compressed into the painting, as if different periods of time appear simultaneously. Starting at the upper left, the owner bids farewell to his son, about to undertake the trip to the vineyard. Those two form the apex of a triangle on the left side of the painting. At its bottom right, two women are busily gathering rich and luscious grapes. Moving rightwards from those women, we pass by other workers obscured in the vines, leading us to our imaginary triangle’s bottom right, where two men are hurrying down the hill. They exchange knowing glances as if they have already conspired about what to do with the son when he arrives.

If you follow them “down the hill,” you’re led to a gaggle of other tenants busily beating up on the servants who arrived earlier. Behind them, in the background, we see some of the infrastructure improvements the Gospel already mentions: the wine vats, a shed, wine barrels, and on the terraced hill in the upper right, a white watchtower. The wardrobes are a combination of 16th-century northern European and Biblical (e.g., the Son, clearly alluding to Christ). In keeping with Van Valckenborch’s Renaissance landscape proclivities, the event is laid against vistas of a rich countryside, with both churches and aqueducts. Biblical, classical and Valckenborch’s own contemporary times come together.

(For another commentary on the painting, on which I draw, see here.)