Today one of the three parables in Matthew which are set in a vineyard and aimed at those who rejected Jesus. The first reading gives the Old Testament background for today’s gospel. The Psalm response also picks up the vineyard image, and only St Paul has something different.
This is a skilfully constructed ‘song’, which draws the listener/reader in gently before the warning of judgement. Many of Jesus’ parables work in the same way of leading to a surprise. Story telling appeals to most people still in our own times though we may be more likely to get our stories on television rather than from a prophetic speaker. A story can, in skilful telling, move beyond only entertainment; it can teach, warn and open up new ideas. Starting first with ‘my friend’ as the vineyard owner Isaiah leads gently towards the shock at the end.
The care of the owner took for his field is described in some detail. After all this attention to the vineyard, the owner finds the vines will give only ‘rotten’ fruit – a closer translation than the ‘sour’ in our liturgy. Fruit was a widely used image for ‘good works’ in the Bible. (Matthew uses it a number of times including in the parable heard today.)
The second section drops the ‘friend’ and the prophet speaks in the first person of the unhappy owner. At this stage, the audience has been drawn into the situation, and likely they are passing judgement and feeling self-righteous. The reverse comes quickly and is a far more extensive a judgment than the listener would expect. Once we get to the command to the rain we know we are out of ‘real’ vine growing, and finally the image is uncovered: the vineyard is the House of Israel, which at this time would be the Northern of the two divided Kingdoms that had been one nation under David. The landowner is thus revealed to be God, speaking as himself as often in the prophetic oracles.
Because we have a translation from a different language we are missing two powerful word-plays that would have struck home to Isaiah’s audience. The word for ‘justice’ or ‘vindication of rights’ is very like the word for ‘bloodshed’. And ‘integrity’ or ‘righteousness’ similar to ‘violence and outcry’. The cry of distress comes from the poor who have been betrayed by the actions of those in power, and it is the rulers who will find themselves as the destroyed field and no longer the favoured nation of Yahweh/the Lord. The prophet here does not have to stress that the lack of righteousness or justice refers especially to how those with power have oppressed those beneath them – this was a consistent focus for Isaiah and the prophets of his time. This is a message just as pertinent today with massive inequalities of wealth and resources.
Psalm 79/80:9, 12-16, 19-20
The psalmist may be recalling the parable of Isaiah, although he takes it in a new turn, first recalling the Exodus and care of the people as God led them to the Promised Land. This is compared to a transplanted vine. Calling on past actions of God as a reason for him to act on behalf of the speaker (or in some cases, all the nation) is frequent in the Psalms. The writers are also quite willing to speak to God in strong terms, almost like an accusation, something we don’t often hear in our prayers which treat God with more reverence. But for the Jews, the strong terms show a deep trust in God, and and a way of counting on his mercy. The Psalmist ends with a promise of a change in behaviour for the future.
In this selection from the Letter of St Paul to his favoured community in Macedonia, he gives them directions for Christian living, starting with praying with confidence in God and with thanksgiving. The promised reward is peace and this in Paul’s view will come by turning to God in all situations. ‘In Christ Jesus’ is a favourite phrase of the apostle. Next he gives them a list of virtues which Brendan Byrne SJ, in his notes in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, says is ‘distinctly Greek’. Because the church at Philippi seems to be made up of largely Gentile converts, Paul has chosen some virtues that they would recognize, and are of course as applicable to Christians as Greek Stoics. He concludes with a second promise of peace for those who live as he urges them to do.
In this section of the gospel, which follows directly from last week’s parable of the two sons sent to tend their father’s vineyard, Jesus is again in controversy with the Jewish leaders. He offers them a much more pointed story – one which would remind listeners who knew Isaiah of that warning against the oppressive leaders of the 7th Century BCE. It begins like Isaiah with the planting and fencing of a vineyard and building a ‘tower’ as a winepress. Jesus then goes in a different direction from Isaiah and does not focus on the failures of the vines. New actors here are the tenants to whom the owner gives the care of the vineyard.
There would be an arrangement for the sharing of the proceeds of a successful harvest but when the owner sends his servants to collect his share, the tenants refuse to pay up and mistreat the servants. He lastly sends his son, who should have been respected as his personal representative. Instead the son is thrown out and killed. Their hope of getting the inheritance seems odd by our legal arrangements, but there is evidence about that time for land left without heirs to be taken over by the tenants.
The listeners have been drawn into the story and pass the obvious judgment that the tenants should be dismissed and the land given to others. Jesus does not directly tell the leaders that they are the ‘wretches’ who have not been worthy of trust. Instead he quotes Psalm 118/119 which speaks of God choosing what people have rejected, something unexpected. (The ‘keystone’ is the one that holds the whole stone building together.) The conclusion is that a new people will become God’s chosen community, based on Jesus.
This is a more of an allegory than many of Jesus’ parables with a meaning for the various details. The servants who come to the tenants are the prophets and teachers God has sent in the past – like Isaiah – to warn and counsel. The son obliquely names Jesus as God’s son who will be rejected and killed. Some see the reference to ‘outside the vineyard’ foreshadowing the crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem.
At least some of the point was taken by those to whom the story was directed, for immediately following the story, is this sentence not read in the liturgy: ‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they saw that he was speaking about them, but when they tried to arrest him, they feared the crowds who considered him a prophet.’
The Christian reader already knows that eventually the enemies will find a way around the ‘crowds’ and carry out the death of the parable – but that God will bring the final reversal of the Resurrection and the new community of Christ.