It's God's vineyard

  • September 26, 2008
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 5 (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43)

Many people can identify with God’s frustration in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard. Perhaps they have given many hours of backbreaking work in a yard or garden with heat and blisters thrown in as a bonus. And when there are no results, when the anticipated flowers, trees or plants fail to grow or grow in wild and bizarre ways, there is only disappointment, frustration and anger. Why bother!
The vineyard is a rich and ancient symbol for wealth, well-being and a source of sustenance. And it is also a powerful metaphor for God’s interaction with human beings. God lavishes so much on the vineyard in the story — it wants for nothing. All of the conditions were right for a fruitful yield. Unfortunately, the vines were not co-operating, and the resulting wild grapes were unfit for wine. God expected a yield of truth, justice and compassion from the covenant people, but only violence and injustice resulted. Now God wants nothing more than to plough the whole thing under — but He doesn’t.

The immediate target of the parable is Israel but it is also aimed at all of humanity. The term “God’s wrath” is often tossed about when the moralizing begins, but it is far more sobering to reflect on God’s pain and disappointment. We are given so much: life itself, intelligence, opportunities for education, an abundant Earth, the gifts of love and companionship and so much more. God asks that we not only be decent human beings — people with a sense of justice and compassion — but that we build communities and nations that reflect this.

A look at the history book — a painful and bloody record — reveals a parade of wars, persecutions, human degradation and exploitation, and abuse of both the Earth and the gifts we are given. Some of these injustices, such as slavery, religious violence and the inequality of women, have even sometimes been presented with theological justification. God does not ask the impossible — we are not expected to be perfect or to be supermen and women. All God asks is that we give back to others some of the love and care that has been lavished on us.

Paul gives us some very simple but reliable advice on how we can accomplish that. Two things will keep us on track. The first is to keep our minds focused on things that are honourable, true, just and pure. We become what we hold in our mind and heart and it is all too easy to fill our minds with junk. The second is to be people of prayer and thanksgiving. Living in this fashion will ensure that our lives bear fruit worthy of God.

But God is so patient and forbearing and sends messengers to remind us of our calling and who owns the vineyard. Matthew’s Gospel gives a new spin to the parable of Isaiah. Matthew’s Jesus uses the metaphor to illustrate how God’s prophets have been treated by people in the past: ignored, ridiculed, persecuted and killed. He then extends the metaphor into their treatment of himself, and ends with dark predictions of Israel’s death and disenfranchisement as the people of God. This parable is very much a part of the anti-Judaic polemics of the period following the destruction of the temple. They are most likely not from the historical Jesus, nor should we suppose that God would treat His people in such a brutal fashion. We need not and should not view the parable as God’s rejection of Israel.

But the parable illustrates well human moral and spiritual deafness and insensitivity when our own behaviour is challenged. Challenges can come through the prophets and reformers of our time, but also through situations and experiences. People sometimes react by retreating and seeking refuge in what is known and familiar and attacking the new and strange. And often that includes persecution, condemnation or humiliation of the messenger. The works of Thomas Aquinas were condemned three times, and some of the star theologians at Vatican II had been silenced in the years before the council. Many of the things we now take for granted — such as democracy and freedom of conscience — have not always been in favour. God is always speaking to us — the real question is whether we are listening or taking refuge in fear and defensiveness.