Oct 5, 2014: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me now sing of my friend,
my friend’s song concerning his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside;
he spaded it, cleared it of stones,
and planted the choicest vines;
within it he built a watchtower,
and hewed out a wine press.
Then he looked for the crop of grapes,
but what it yielded was wild grapes.

Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes,
did it bring forth wild grapes?
Now, I will let you know
what I mean to do with my vineyard:
take away its hedge, give it to grazing,
break through its wall, let it be trampled!
Yes, I will make it a ruin:
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
but overgrown with thorns and briers;
I will command the clouds
not to send rain upon it.
The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his cherished plant;
he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!
for justice, but hark, the outcry!

Our reading for today has been titled “Song of the Lord’s Vineyard,” and is believed to have been composed during the early years of Isaiah’s ministry.

This poem is a parable of great artistry. On the most obvious level it employs the metaphor of a vineyard representing the house of Israel. On the level of literary form it moves quite easily from a poem of love (vv. 1-2) to an indictment of sin (vv. 34) to a proclamation of judgment (vv. 5-6), thus reviewing the entire sweep of the major portion of Israel’s history from its election to the time of the prophet Isaiah. The last verse explains the meaning of the parable.

Let me now sing of my friend, my friend’s song concerning his vineyard.

The love song tells the story of the prophet’s friend. The word for “friend” (yādad), which is also translated “beloved,” is generally used to describe individuals who are greatly loved by God.

My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside;

The second word translated here as “friend” or “beloved” is dôd, the word with which the woman in the Song of Songs refers to the man she loves. In that collection of love songs the vineyard is one of the places where the lovers met (Song of Solomon 7:12). The similarities between this poem and the Song of Songs would certainly not be lost on Isaiah’s hearers.

He spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; Within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press.

The attentiveness of the vineyard owner is clearly sketched. Each step of the viticultural process is carefully accomplished. Anyone familiar with planting and caring for vines can attest to the backbreaking nature of such a venture. The psalmist’s friend was certainly devoted to his vineyard.

Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes.

Everything was done to guarantee a bountiful harvest but to no avail. Not only was there no abundant harvest, but what came forth were wild grapes. This unnatural yield was not the result of poor cultivation on the part of the grower. On the contrary, the vineyard itself had failed.

Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?

The speaker now changes. No longer is the prophet describing his friend; it is the owner of the vineyard who turns to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah for some form of judgment. This owner declares that all the steps necessary to ensure a bountiful yield were taken. One might be able to offer some reason for a paltry harvest, but how does one explain a crop of wild grapes? The only answer is deliberate treachery or rejection of all of the careful attention provided. The indictment of sin has been issued.

Now, I will let you know what I mean to do to my vineyard: Take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers;

Judgment is now passed on the unnatural vineyard. Some of the steps taken to ensure its productivity will be undone. The protection that would have fended off the assaults of predatory animals and the theft of the crops is removed, and the vineyard is now vulnerable to any form of defilement and devastation. Natural enemies will overrun the carefully cultivated land and plants, and all will fall into ruin.

I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it.

The real identity of the owner is disclosed in the final verse of the condemnation. The clouds will he commanded to with hold necessary life-giving rain. Since only God has such power over nature, the prophet is obviously telling a parable about God and a vineyard God loved dearly.

As is so often the case with parabolic teaching, the meaning of this parable turns a situation in life upside down. Here, the owner of the vineyard has just turned to the people of Jerusalem and Judah for a judgment about the case placed before him. They did not know the judgment they would pass would be directed back upon them.

The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his cherished plant;

God, through the prophet, decodes the meaning of the parable: the owner of the vineyard is God; the vineyard, the cherished plant, is the house of Israel.

He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!

With a double play on words, the prophet uses words that sound alike but have radically different meanings to describe the heinousness of the people’s offense. God looked for judgment (mishpāt), but found bloodshed (mispāh); for justice (sedeq), but found an outcry (sāqâ). God had invested so much in the future of this people, and they scorned the attention of the beloved vineyard owner. What began as a love song ends as a message of doom.

2nd Reading – Philippians 4:6-9

Brothers and sisters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.

The tenderness with which Paul regards the Christians of Philippi is evident in today’s reading. Something is causing them distress, and Paul offers them encouragement and direction.

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.

Anxiety suggests a lack of confidence in one’s ability in a certain situation, which is a common experience of all people. From a religious point of view, it can also imply a lack of confidence in God’s concern and protection. It is the latter attitude that Paul addresses here. Rather than be anxious about something, Christians are admonished to turn to God in prayer.

Paul’s counsel does suggest that the circumstances that caused the anxiety will be corrected that the anxiety will be relieved. Paul does not lead his hearers to believe prayer is some kind of magical exercise that will right every wrong. It is, here, an openness to God, which itself can help people bear trying circumstances. Paul counsels prayer in general and petition in particular. We should note that he tells them to offer this prayer with thanksgiving. Such gratefulness will be evidence of their confidence that God will hear their prayer.

“‘Have no anxiety at all.’ This means: Do not be concerned for yourselves. Do not give unnecessary thought to or be anxious about the world or worldly things. For all that is needful for you in this life God provides. And it will be even better in that life which is eternal.” [Marius Victorinus (ca. A.D. 355), Epistle to the Philippians 4,6]

Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul next assures the Philippians that if they surrender their anxiety in favor of this thankfulness, they will know the peace that only God can give, the peace that surpasses all understanding. Using a military term, he promises that this peace will stand guard (phrourá) over their minds and hearts in Christ Jesus. This latter phrase, a favorite of Paul’s, identifies the context within which Christian life unfolds. It suggests that Christians live principally in relation to Christ and through Christ.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The moral instruction has two distinct parts. The first consists of three pairs of ethical qualities followed by two comprehensive attributes. They provide Christians with directions for judging the worthiness of things. In other words, they tell them how to think. Although these qualities resemble the moral philosophy of the day, Paul interprets them from within his own Christian worldview.

“’Whatever is true’ — What are these ‘true’ things? They are set out in the gospel: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and all that goes with that good news. When your thoughts are true, it follows that they will be ‘honorable.’ What is true is not corrupted, which means that it is honorable. What is not corrupted is true. Then what is true and honorable will also be ‘just,’ for it is made just or ‘justified.’ And what is made just is pure since it receives ‘sanctification’ from God. All that is ‘just, honorable, true and pure’ is ‘lovable’ and also ‘gracious.’ For who does not love these saintly virtues? Who does not speak and think well of them? … Of this list some items pertain to true virtue in itself, while the later ones pertain to the fruit of virtue. To virtue it belongs to love ‘truth, honor, justice and purity.’ To the fruit of virtue belongs that which is ‘lovely and gracious.’” [Marius Victorinus (ca. A.D. 355), Epistle to the Philippians 4,8-9]

Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.

This is followed by an admonition to righteous living.

The source of the first list may have been Greek moral thinking, but the source of the second exhortation is Paul himself. It was from him the Philippians learned the message of the gospel; it was from him they received the tradition that was handed down. His own life is the example placed before them as a model for theirs. Paul’s attitude appears to be the complete opposite of that of the Philippians. They lacked self-confidence and trust in God; Paul is confident in his own Christian authenticity because it is grounded “in Christ.”

“He sees that it is impossible to give precise instructions about everything — their going out, their coming in, their words, their inner condition and their company. All of these a Christian must think about in context. He says concisely and as it were in a nutshell, ‘Just do what you have heard and seen me do.'” Saint John Chrysostom (between. A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the Epistle to the Philippians 16,4,10-14]

Then the God of peace will be with you.

Just as the first section that addressed the issue of anxiety ended with a promise of the peace of God, so does this ethical exhortation conclude. Both Christian thinking and Christian behavior will open the believer to the kind of peace only God can give.

Gospel – 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.”

In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we once again find Jesus in Jerusalem sparring with the leaders of the nation. He challenges them with another parable about a vineyard.

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.

In this parable, the master of the house himself planted the vineyard, built the protection around it, and constructed the winepress to be used at the time of vintage. After the hard work was finished he leased to tenants who had only to care for the vines until the grapes were ready for the press. He left the country and acted as an absentee landlord. The scene is set for the drama to unfold.

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.

Many commentators believe Jesus intended an allegorical interpretation of this parable, with the servants representing the prophets. This is certainly a credible way of interpreting it. First, there was a long-standing tradition in Israel in which the People of God were characterized as a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1 -7). In such a context God would be understood as the owner of the vineyard, and the leaders of the people would be the tenant vinedressers to whom the vineyard was leased. To these leaders God periodically sent prophets to announce God’s designs. Israel’s history records how both the leaders and the people refused to listen to the prophets and even put some of them to death (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

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.’

Failing all else, the son of the owner is sent with the full authority of his father. The reasoning of the tenants may seem puzzling. Why would they think killing the son would make them eligible for inheriting the vineyard? There may have been a provision stating that in the absence of an owner property could be claimed by those who were able to secure immediate possession. With the son dead, the tenants might be able to lay claim on the vineyard if they could ensure the absence of the owner.

They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Continuing the allegorical interpretation, the parable suggests that God sent Jesus with full divine authority, and the leaders of the people put him to death outside the city (the site of Jesus’ crucifixion was outside the walls of Jerusalem). Whether Jesus actually predicted his own death or whether this prediction reflects the parable’s later reshaping by a Christian community, the detail is an important feature of the story as it has come down to us.

What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”

When Jesus finished recounting the parable, he turned to the leaders and asked them to provide a legal ruling on the situation. They must have known the parable was highlighting their own resistance to God’s directives, and further they would have known that whatever judgment they might suggest would fall on their heads as well.

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.”

The sentence they passed was quite harsh, but it was no harsher than the conduct of the wretched tenants.

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’?

The rejection of the son calls to mind the passage from Scripture about the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone (cf. Ps 118:22-23).

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.”

Just as the vineyard is taken from the wicked tenants and given to others, so the kingdom of God will be taken from the leaders and given to people who will produce fruits. We must be careful not to interpret this passage in an anti-Judaic fashion. It was the leaders who were condemned by Jesus, not the entire people.

The effect this parable produced resembles the effect produced by the parable read in last Sunday’s gospel. The leaders condemn themselves with their own words. They are thereby shamed in the sight of the people, while Jesus’ honor is enhanced.

Connections and Themes

Vineyard.  Vines are sturdy plants. While they are usually found in mild to warm climates, they can also thrive is less clement regions. They can grow wild and yield grapes of the same nature, or they can be cultivated and thereby produce fruit that is more abundant and sweeter to the tongue. The fruit of the cultivated vine both nourishes and delights. From it we get grapes that can be eaten, dried as raisins, or crushed into wine. It is no wonder ancient Israel and the early Christians employed the metaphor when speaking of the reign of God.

Today the metaphor describes a cultivated vineyard that must be tended and protected. In order that its life force be put to the best possible advantage, it needs to be watered and pruned and protected from whatever might hamper its growth. What is also necessary is protection from predators and from those who might rob the owner of its produce. The metaphor suggests that while the vines themselves might be hardy, they are also vulnerable. So is the reign of God. It must be tended and protected from what might endanger it so that it can produce abundant and delectable fruit.

Treachery. We do not slip out of the reign of God by accident. We deliberately step out of it. Just as we freely choose it; so we freely reject it. The first reading and the gospel describe two attempts at thwarting God’s plans for the kingdom. In both instances there is deliberate treachery. The first reading describes the tender and solicitous care God has taken on behalf of the vineyard/kingdom. God worked tirelessly to ensure that it would thrive and be a source of enjoyment and prosperity. Despite all God’s plans and effort it produced an unacceptable crop. There was no mistake here. God was in no way remiss in planting or tending. The vineyard was rebellious.

The metaphor functions differently in the gospel account. Here the fault is not with the vineyard. It produces an abundant crop. In fact, it is the very productivity of the vineyard that sets the stage for the treachery described. In this case, those who were trusted stewards turn out to be traitorous usurpers. They want the vineyard for themselves, and they are willing to use any means to acquire it.

Without interpreting either of these metaphors allegorically, we can see ourselves in each instance. There are times when, regardless of what God seems to be doing for us, we simply rebel against God’s plans. We stand in defiance and cry out: I will not serve; I will do what I want. There are other times when we who are disciples of Jesus act as if the kingdom is ours, to direct or to manage it as we see fit. We might even marginalize or force out others with whom we do not agree, so that we have sole control. Unfortunately, we may not be above such treachery.

Recompense. When we consider the justice of God, it is important we place it within the right context, lest we create a picture of God that is false and misleading.  It is because of God’s tender love for the vineyard that treachery cannot be tolerated. If we have produced unacceptable fruits, it is for our own good that God steps in and dismantles the structures that enabled us to produce as we did. If we attempt to usurp the kingdom in order to exercise our own control over it, is appropriate that God snatch it from our grasp and entrust it to one who will faithfully carry out God’s plans.

Along with themes such as these, today we are provided with an exhortation to righteousness. Paul’s words, though challenging, are nonetheless consoling. He promises that if we live lives of integrity the God of peace will dwell with us. As terrifying as God’s judgment may appear to be, there is always the hope of another chance.

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