Dave Spicer, Wikimedia Commons

The right path is the just path

  • September 26, 2014

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

The prophets of Israel had an array of instruments at their disposal in their struggle to reform the nation. Symbolic behaviour — a form of street theatre — was one such technique, and it was very effective in the hands of someone like Jeremiah. 

Isaiah constructed a parable that was very possibly intended to be sung. The vineyard in the parable symbolized the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the setting was the mid to late eighth century B.C., as Israel faced the threat of the brutal superpower of Assyria. The purpose of the song/parable was to snap the people out of their spiritual and moral lethargy and self-delusion. They were in serious trouble and faced destruction unless they mended their ways and returned to the path of God. 

The owner of the vineyard was of course God, who exercised an incredible amount of love, care and patience on the vineyard. All He expected in return is that it would bear abundant fruit, but it was not to be — wild, sour grapes were the only result. As a result, the owner removed all protective barriers, withheld the rain and allowed the vineyard to be laid waste. As Isaiah explained the meaning of the parable, he pointed out that God expected justice and righteousness but received only bloodshed, violence and wickedness. The prophetic parable was not heeded, and in 722 B.C. Assyria laid waste to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel ceased to exist, leaving only Judah in the south. 

Today we might question whether God “punished” Israel — it was most likely the nation reaping the consequences of its own choices. But the point of the parable is still on target. Israel could not hide its lack of justice and mercy behind its status and professed relationship with God. That also applies to us. A special relationship with God or a holy mission comes with tremendous responsibilities — it is not a free pass. More than an average or passable quantity of justice and compassionate action is required and expected. Piety, religious rhetoric, wealth or power will not suffice, nor will they shield us from the consequences of our own actions. Nations have discovered this to their dismay, and so has the Church, especially in recent years. We are all treated equally by God — no exceptions. Listening to the prophetic warnings in our midst — the songs, stories and parables that are never absent — is one way to avoid ruinous consequences. 

Paul had some good advice on how to remain on the right path: keep your mind, heart and deeds on whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable and praiseworthy. It’s fairly simple — no need for a lot of sophisticated reasoning or intricate theology. Do this and be diligent in prayer, Paul insisted, and you will know the peace of God and not stray from the path. 

The parable of the vineyard reappeared in Matthew’s Gospel but with some significant modifications. Following customary exegetical methods, Matthew retold the parable for his own time and situation. The vineyard still signified Israel, but now there was a series of abused and rejected messengers and a murdered vineyard owner’s son, who of course represented the prophets and Jesus. Jesus then asked an ominous rhetorical question: What will the vineyard owner do to those tenants? The answer: he will put them all to a wretched death and give the vineyard to other tenants who will produce fruit in due season. This modified parable reflected the poisonous environment of the late first century, and the slaughter it referred to was the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70. Many of the first-century followers of Jesus believed — Matthew among them — that Israel had been punished and abandoned by God for its rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. Some believed that all of the status and privileges of Israel now belonged to the Christian Church exclusively. It was an attempt to make theological sense out of catastrophic events, but its conclusion is not theologically permissible today. 

We need to be extremely careful in what we say and write, especially when we claim to speak for God. Perhaps we can sing this parable once again, this time of tenants who were forgiven and never rejected and new tenants who made many of the same mistakes. 

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