Paul’s advice puts our mission in focus

  • September 30, 2017

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 8 (Year A) Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

What does a song or poem about a vineyard say about Israel, God and Jesus?

The prophets did not prophesy to the nation or denounce injustice in modern ways. Charts and graphs, reports and commissions, or media campaigns were not part of the ancient way, especially among the prophets. They relied on vivid metaphors and images designed to capture the imagination and emotions of their target audience, as well as a bit of bizarre street theatre.

The song of the vineyard in Isaiah used images and metaphors both beautiful and stark. The beloved of the song was of course the God of Israel, and the vineyard was Israel itself. The owner planted the vineyard and blessed it with protection, sun, rain and everything needed to yield grapes and wine. But it didn’t happen!

He expected justice and righteousness, but received only bloodshed and injustice — wild grapes, bitter and inedible. In disappointment and anger, the vineyard owner planned to take back all the benefits that he had given to the vineyard. There would be no life-giving rain, the protective walls and hedges would be removed, and the entire vineyard would be trampled on and laid waste.

This prophecy was given during a tumultuous time in Israel’s history — the late 7th and early 6th centuries B.C. Jerusalem was being buffeted by attacks from Assyrians and later by Babylonians. Instead of focusing on the collective moral and spiritual state of the nation, the leaders played power politics and forged dubious alliances. The shock language was clear in its intent — get your house in order or terrible consequences will follow.

We know the sad outcome. The warning was not heeded. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 586 B.C. and the people were led into captivity in Babylon. We should not think of this merely as an event long ago, but as a continual pattern. Even today, there are many forms of destruction and as many forms of exile. We should never take God for granted, for God has expectations of us all. As we can see, collectively we are not doing a great job.

Paul had some fine advice for those who would like to maintain and strengthen their moral and spiritual state. Focus on whatever is true, good, honourable, pure, just, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise. Do not be distracted or led astray by the host of dark and negative things present in the world. We fashion our souls by our thoughts, actions, words and ideals, so let us choose well.

Many centuries later, the song of the vineyard made a reappearance in the Gospel of Matthew. It was written towards the end of the first century AD, and the memory of the destruction of the second temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD was fresh, vivid and painful.

The evangelist struggled to make theological sense out of the terrible things that had occurred. Following Jewish midrash practices, he plucked a pertinent prophetic passage from past tradition — in this case Isaiah 5 — and recast it to meet the needs of his own time.

The vineyard is still Israel, but there are new characters. The messengers sent to collect the produce are the prophets and they are treated as the historical prophets were — badly. The owner’s son, of course, is Jesus, and He is killed by those tending the vineyard.

They did not produce the expected fruits and they abused or killed everyone sent to warn them. The dark prediction of destruction in answer to Jesus’ question reflected an event that had already occurred. In Matthew’s eyes, the people of Jerusalem deserved their fate.

This rewritten parable was generated by the power struggles and poisonous theological atmosphere of the late first century. Matthew and his community were Jewish, as was his intended audience, but they were also followers of Jesus. Matthew saw his community as the New Israel, and those Jews that did not follow Jesus as disinherited and cast aside.

We need not and should not accept such a view and, in fact, it is not the teaching of the Church. These and similar passages provided fuel for anti-Jewish persecution and violence for centuries. Words — both spoken and written — have power for good or ill long after we are gone.

Let us choose our words with care and compassion.