Psalm 80:9+12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20
In today’s First Reading we hear a poem from the beginning of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry to Israel. The basic image is a vine planted in a field with great care. The nation Israel is often seen by various prophets as a choice vine. The prophet’s friend is the God Who has called Isaiah and Who had given Israel a fertile land and planted Israel there with great saving-love.
The Planter is pictured as expecting great crops of tasty fruit, but what God finds is sour grapes not good for wine-making. God uses the words of the prophet to tell the House of Israel that, because of their lack of justice and living of the laws, they will be trampled and not defended any longer by God.
The image is clear and then God steps from behind the image and announces what is going to happen. The land will be invaded while Israel will go into exile. The prophet here is not making friends, but has to sing of his Friend’s history of love as well as his Friend’s desire for Israel’s return to its being the “choicest vine”.
The Gospel is more an allegory than a parable. The story Jesus tells is also about an owner planting a vineyard. All the features and characters in the story are accounted for in reality. Jesus is speaking directly to and about the “chief priests and elders of the people.” They would be quite familiar with the image of Israel as a planted vine or vineyard. They are the “tenants” and the “hedge” is the Law of Moses. The “winepress” is the very land given to Israel after the Exodus and forty years in the desert. The “tower” is the sacred place of God’s presence in the temple within Jerusalem. Worship of God in the temple was their celebration of being protected by God.
Keeping the Law, caring for the land, and liturgical purification and worship rites were the good fruits. Prophets, “servants” were sent to announce to the people their failings as well as instructions about right living. Matthew relies on his listeners knowledge of the history of prophets in Israel. They had been stoned, imprisoned and killed. At last the Owner sends His Own Son whom the leaders throw outside the vineyard and kill Him as well.
Jesus asks the leaders what will happen next. What will the Owner in the story do. They, themselves, give a self-condemning proclamation which Jesus turns on them. Jesus quotes Psalm 118 verse 22 in telling the priests and elders that He, Jesus, is the Stone rejected by them, but is the cornerstone upon which a vineyard will be rebuilt and given over to others who will bring forth fruitful lives of compassion and justice. Matthew is reminding His listeners that all this is the Lord’s doing and it has been and will be “wonderful in our eyes.” There is no ambiguity in this story and the priests and elders hear that they are considered as rejected as the leaders of God’s people. It is important to be aware that Jesus, here in Matthew’s Gospel, is not picturing God as rejecting Israel and the Jews. Jesus and the disciples are Israelites themselves.
We are not involved in deciding who is “in” and who is “out” in relating with God. Jesus was deeply aware that the leaders of His time were more interested in the people following their interpretations of the Law then in following the real meaning of the Law. Jesus, according to Matthew, is sent first to the people of Israel as was the son in the allegory sent into the vineyard following the “servants” who had been killed. What we are to hear is the deep love that God, the Owner, has for the people and that this love is given so that there will be fruitfulness within the vineyard of God.
We are cultivated by many differing laborers. Our spirits are similar to the land. We receive poisons from the manure which some workers distribute through the media and entertainments. The sour grapes result from the drought of self-forgiveness. Perfection becomes the harvest and when we experience our imperfections, we assume that God will be collecting us in the weed pile for eternity. We can be smothered by the locusts of materialistic greed which devour simplicity and gratitude. It is difficult to offer our faces to the warmth of the sun when we are burdened with the discouraging pulls of the earthly gravitational downness. The beauty of the flower and the tastiness of the fruit are rooted in the dirt, which the Dirt-Owner has embraced so that there would be beauty and life.
“The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to those who are searching for His love.” Lamentations, 3, 25
By Larry Gillick