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God's Word on Sunday: Survival depends on walking God’s path

  • September 27, 2020

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

In ancient Israel, a vineyard was far more than just a place to grow grapes. It was a rich symbol embedded in much of Israel’s religious literature, signifying God’s abundance and gracious generosity. It played a key role in the economy and often defined one’s wealth.

Widows, orphans and the poor were welcome to the gleanings of the harvest. After the harvest, offerings were made to the Lord in the temple. Israel was God’s vineyard and the state of the vineyard reflected Israel’s relationship with God for good or ill.

When Isaiah began to fulfill his role as an anointed prophet and conscience of the nation, the song of the vineyard in Chapter 5 of Isaiah told a sad tale. The beloved had cared lovingly for his vineyard. He cleared it, provided security and sent rain to water it. All that he expected was a good harvest of grapes. But the vineyard only brought forth wild grapes unfit for consumption.

In his disappointment, hurt and anger, the beloved intended to lay waste the vineyard, withdrawing all the blessings that had been given. The rain would cease and it would become a desert.

Isaiah explained the mysterious ballad for the listener. The beloved is God and the vineyard the House of Israel. Instead of the expected harvest of righteousness and justice, it had produced bloodshed, injustice and misery.

Historically, this was probably a wakeup call to the nation in the late eighth century BC, when the murderous threat of the Assyrians loomed large on the horizon. The message was clear: Your strength and survival will depend solely on your justice, mercy and adherence to the ways of God.

God cannot be taken for granted — blessings are indeed given, but there must also be a response on the part of the people. The warning is also addressed to us in the 21st century. Our collective vineyard is being laid waste in so many areas: environmental, social, political, economic and religious. It does no good to rail against fate, point fingers or play the victims, for we are all collectively responsible.

Paul provides us with a way of navigating the many conflicting voices and twisted paths that we find all around us. The secret is simple: Keep the eye of your heart and mind pure by focusing unwaveringly on whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable. Think about things that are excellent and praiseworthy, then conform your lives to them.

Soul pollution is a great danger today. It is distressing what many are willing to allow into their minds and hearts. We should not be surprised or shocked at the results. We create the world in which we live.

Jewish biblical interpretation is called midrash. In midrashic interpretation, stories from the Scriptures were often retold, adding details and telling the story from a different angle. Passages from the prophets were recast in a way that addressed contemporary challenges and needs.

The song of the vineyard was retold in the first century of our era to highlight the role and status of Jesus. This version stressed the treatment of the owner’s messengers at the hands of the tenants.

The messengers had been sent to collect the harvest but were mistreated and beaten by the tenants. Finally, the owner sent his son, but he was seized and killed. The story ends with the ominous warning that the owner will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others. This was written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, which some early Christians saw as divine punishment for their treatment of the prophets and rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

This was written in the rancorous atmosphere of first-century intrareligious polemics and was intended to delegitimize Israel. It used standard prophetic rhetoric and threats. This is not an acceptable view today and never was.

The destruction of Jerusalem was the consequence of Roman imperialism and military might colliding with the rebellion of the Jewish nation against Roman rule. The kingdom of God has not been taken away from anyone — all those with longing hearts and minds open to God are welcome.

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