TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2020)
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalms 80:9, 12-16, 19-20 Philippians 4:6-9 Matthew 21:33-43
The image of God’s vineyard has a long history in the Judeao-Christian church of which we are apart, and it has already been used by Matthew several times in this year’s cycle of Sunday readings. The image appears in the writings of numerous prophets, and as we shall see in this week’s responsorial psalm, is a favorite of the psalmist. Sunday’s parable is directed at the “chief priests and elders of the people,” and is a virtual update of our first reading from the prophet Isaiah.
The long-held view of God’s kingdom as a vineyard, gives Isaiah, speaking for God, the opportunity to challenge “the inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judea.” Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” goes back some eight centuries before Christ, and it was intended to address a divided Promised Land, Israel in the north, Judea in the south. That Promised Land was God’s vineyard, which God planted on a “fertile hillside.” God “spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines.” “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done,” says God. The vineyard of God, both halves, are God’s “cherished plant.” But when God came looking for good grapes, He found none. The inhabitants of the vineyard had not taken care of it; they disobeyed God by perpetuating injustice and shedding the blood of the innocent. God would allow this non-productive vineyard to devolve into “ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but [it will] be overgrown with thorns and briers.”
The vineyard imagery, is repeated in our responsorial psalm, which prays for a restoration of the vineyard that God has planted. The psalmist laments, “why have you broken down its walls, so that every passer-by plucks its fruit…. Once again, O Lord of hosts, look down from heaven and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted.”
While Matthew introduces his story as a “parable,” it is much more like an allegory, for each detail of the story has a symbolic meaning. As already stated, it is a virtual update of Isaiah’s story, taking into consideration the world that Jesus and His disciples find themselves in. The landowner creates the vineyard as in Isaiah, but here he “leases it to tenants,” who he rightly assumes will take care of the vineyard. When vintage time comes, he sends “his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce,” something not uncommon at the time of Jesus. By identifying the “servants” as Moses, the prophets, and John the Baptist, this parable of the wicked tenants is a theological summary of the entire history of the ingratitude, infidelity, and hard-heartedness of the Chosen People. The appearance of this parable in all three gospels, gives us a sense of how much it was cherished by the early church communities.
The tenants do not treat the landowner’s servants very well at all. They are seized and beaten, murdered and stoned. Perhaps thinking it was an anomaly, the landowner sends more servants, but they are “treated in much the same way.” The landowner then sends his son, for “surely they will respect my son.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus has already entered Jerusalem, and we know the rest of the story. Jesus’ death is meant to be viewed as part of the long line of mistreatment divvied out to God’s prophets who preceded Him. Jesus will be thrown out of the vineyard (Jerusalem), and die on a cross with two other criminals.
If we were to follow Isaiah’s lead, the people would be left to ruin, but note that Jesus doesn’t take us there. Instead, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, apparently still not making the connection that the parable was meant for them, “what will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” It is the chief priests and elders, perhaps echoing our thoughts, who answer “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.” What has been entrusted to the Chosen People, will, in fact, be given to others (Gentiles), and it is Jesus who confirms that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
As we are surely aware, God’s word in the Scriptures (this parable) is the “living Word of God,” and as such it is not meant to be a mere recitation of something said historically, but it is meant to challenge us, as well as the Scribes and Pharisees. As Christians who have been called by God to work in His vineyard, the Church, we are the tenants from whom God expects fruits of righteousness. We are called to perform deeds (fruits) of love, justice, integrity, kindness, humility, compassion, mercy, goodness, and avoid the sins of self-righteousness, arrogance, vain-glory, prejudice, and ill-temper. The threat of the landowner’s return should not cause us to be afraid, for “every Christian must, or ought to, live every moment with a lively consciousness that Christ may call him/her the very next moment to appear before Him and be judged for eternity according to what he/she has done with his/her life up to then. Every hour of every day the whole Church repeats: “Come, Lord Jesus! Come soon!” And she is always ready to welcome Him” (Fr. Louis Bouyer). May we be strengthened by the privilege of being able to work in God’s vineyard, and may we never tire of producing good fruit, the kind of fruit that makes the owner of the vineyard happy, the kind of fruit that makes the world in which we live joyful.