What — and who — is the vineyard of the Lord? Sunday reflection
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:33–43:
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
“Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
Oenophiles must be delighted by today’s readings, which focus on two parables regarding vineyards. To be honest, I enjoy wine but know little about it. I prefer red wine to white, and generally dry wines to sweeter varieties, while the First Mate’s tastes run exactly the opposite. About the only expertise I have in the field is the knowledge of why waiters will show diners the cork before pouring, which is to read the stamped label rather than sniff it. That way, a customer can be sure that the cork matches the bottle, showing that it has not been recorked or the bottle label switched, although I certainly wouldn’t know the difference if it had been. If I order red and it looks red, that’s about where my skills end.
That’s not to shortchange the importance of wine in human history. Winemaking goes back almost to the very beginnings of human civilization, and almost from that beginning have been tied to religious rituals. The oldest discovery of wine production goes back 6,000 years to an Armenian cave, but other archeology shows evidence stretching back 9,000 years in China, and wine residue has been found in Georgia dating back 8,000 years.
By the time of Isaiah, wine-making as a religious process had been long known. The ancient Egyptians may have gotten it from the Canaanites, and became part of their preparations for the afterlife. It became part of the ritual for the Israelites at Passover, which is why it comes down to us to this day as part of the Mass. Winemaking was an important part of spiritual life in Israel and Judah during Isaiah’s mission, an important component of the worship of the Lord. And of course, Jesus chose as His first recorded miracle the conversion of water into wine for the wedding feast at Cana, foreshadowing the new covenant He would establish with His church.
In relating “his friend’s song concerning his vineyard,” Isaiah argues explicitly that the vineyard which has produced useless crops of wild grapes is Israel itself, and the Lord its owner. After He provided all of the tender care needed to produce a bountiful harvest, Israel and Judah produced only “bloodshed” and “outcry.” Using winemaking as a parable, the Lord says through Isaiah that their worship is empty and therefore useless, and that it would be better to plow it under and let it go fallow for others to graze rather than keep trying to cultivate it. In the next verses, Isaiah warns that the destruction of the Lord’s vineyard will not be alone:
The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”
By the time Jesus tells His parable, Isaiah’s warning would be well known, and the parallel obvious. However, Jesus gives a different twist to the story of the vineyard. To put this in proper perspective, remember that Jesus teaches this in the Temple itself, in full view of the its leadership. He tells this parable after having been challenged about His authority to teach there at all, and provides this story as an answer.
In His retelling, the owner again expects some sort of production from the vineyard, but this time the workers tasked with producing wine refuse to allow it. They want the vineyard for themselves and not the owner, going so far as murdering the owner’s son to secure it. Jesus gives this parable specifically to the chief priests and the elders, those most responsible for the flourishing of God’s Word. No longer does the Lord blame all of Israel for its failure, Jesus warns; it is the leadership of God’s people who have stolen from the Lord what is rightfully His.
This is a direct challenge to the Temple authorities, and they knew it. The Pharisees and Sadducees begin plotting how to get rid of Jesus as this point, seeing Him as a threat to their power and authority. Matthew writes that they made some sort of attempt to arrest Jesus after this parable, but backed down out of fear of the crowd. The reference was not lost on them, although the lesson clearly was.
While Isaiah and Jesus tell two different version of the vineyard parable, they share important historic and symbolic points in common. Both foreshadow the destruction of the existing order and authority. Isaiah prophesied just before the exile of Israel after Assyria’s conquest, and roughly a century before Judah’s first wave of Babylonian captivity. The Lord indeed warned Israel and Judah that He would “let it be trampled,” but His people failed to heed the warning. Later, however, the Lord’s other prophets (Jeremiah especially) told His people to keep hope in their hearts, and that the Lord would not forsake them entirely.
In the second parable, Jesus combines Isaiah and Jeremiah. The existing order would be destroyed again, He teaches, but a new order would arise to carry on the work of salvation. The original plan of salvation gave the kingdom of Israel a mission to teach all the other nations of the Lord and His commandments for salvation, but Israel had failed. The plan of salvation would reverse that with a church established by Jesus to take the Word to all the nations for conversion. If the fruit could not be produced in Israel, it would be produced everywhere else.
This was the mission that ancient Israel and Judah forgot. They rejected the Lord in favor of worldly ambitions of secular power, and likewise in His time, Jesus was rejected in a vain attempt by the old order to keep for themselves what was the Lord’s even while Jesus warned them of this exact outcome. His Passion mirrors the rejection of the Lord by the ancient kingdoms, and had the exact same effect.
The vineyard of the Lord, therefore, is in all places, most especially in the hearts of His children. Who are its workers? We all are — when we give the Lord His due and produce for His sake and not our own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to worship at His altar with wine and bread. We must also toil in His fields and help others to do the same.
I’ll drink to that mission, even if the only specific order I can give other than “red” is Chianti.
The front page image is a photo of vineyards in Umbria, from my own collection.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.