Several Hebrew prophets used a vineyard symbolically for the people God had chosen, loved and cared for. Jesus picks up the image and takes it to a new level of meaning, creating a story that predicts what will happen to him.
This is a skilfully constructed ‘song’, which draws the listener/reader in gently before the warning of a coming judgement. Many of Jesus’ parables work in the same way of a simple story leading to a surprise. A story can, in skilful telling, move beyond only entertainment; it can teach, warn and open up new ways of looking at the world. Parables of both the prophets and Jesus work in this way.
Starting first speaking of ‘my friend’ as the vineyard owner, Isaiah leads the listener gently into the story. 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 even feeling self-righteous. The reversal 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 was the northern of the two divided kingdoms that had been one nation under David; Judah was the southern kingdom, so the whole of God’s people is meant. The landowner is then 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 word-plays in the last verse that would have made a strong contrast 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. The prophet here does not have to stress that the lack of righteousness or justice was caused by those with power to oppress those beneath them – this was a consistent focus for Isaiah and other prophets of his time. That failure of justice is a message just as pertinent today in our world of massive inequalities of wealth and resources.
Psalm 79/80:9, 12-16, 19-20
The psalmist also uses a vineyard symbolically, recalling the Exodus and care of the people as God led them to the Promised Land. This is compared to transplanting a vine to a new place to grow. Calling on past actions of God as a reason for him to act on behalf of the speaker or all the nation is frequent in the Psalms. The writers of the Older Testament are quite willing to speak to God in strong terms, even words that sound to us almost like an accusation. Christians more traditionally pray to God with more reverence. But for the Jews, such strong terms show a deep trust in God, and even a way of counting on his mercy. The Psalmist ends with a promise of a change in future once God has rescued them.
In this part of the Letter of St Paul to a favourite community he founded, 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, but are of course as applicable to all Christians as to Greek Stoics. He concludes with a second promise of peace for those who live as he urged 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 caught up in controversy with some of the Jewish leaders. He offers them a much more pointed story that the previous one. 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, not focusing on the failures of the vines. New actors are the tenants to whom the owner gives the care of the vineyard. This agricultural practice would have been a recognisable situation at the time and he seems to have had no trouble drawing the listeners into his story.
To work on the land at that time, arrangements were made for the sharing the proceeds of a successful harvest. So far, so expected. But when the owner sends his servants to collect his share, the tenants refuse to pay up and mistreat the servants. Such a case of injustice leads the listeners to feel indignant. Finally, the owner sends his son, whom he expects will be respected as his personal representative. Instead the son is thrown out and then killed. Their hope of inheriting seems odd by legal practices of our times, but there is historic evidence that then land left without heirs could 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 Jewish leaders of the time 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 totally unexpected. (The ‘keystone’ is the one that holds the whole stone building together.) The prediction is that a new people will become God’s chosen community, based on Jesus as its foundation.
This is a more of an allegory than many of Jesus’ parables, with a precise 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’ is a veiled indication that Jesus is God’s son who will be rejected and killed. Some commentators also 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, there is the conclusion which is 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’ who supported Jesus and carry out the death foretold in the parable. But we also know God will bring the reversal of the Resurrection and the new community he predicted.