God's Word on Sunday: We have failed to use God’s fruits wisely

  • October 6, 2023

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

Poetry and song can be beautiful and moving, elevating the heart and soul. In the ancient world theological reflection was expressed in poems, parables, epics and myths. Those who could sing them were held in the highest esteem in societies.

The best psalms resonate with the heart and soul of the listener. But there are times when these poetic forms carry a hard and even menacing message. The Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah is a case in point. It was written in the decades prior to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. We can imagine that the tone of the song was rather somber and mournful, even with an angry edge. God speaks, wistfully recounting the great care and tenderness that He has lavished on His vineyard. Nothing had been spared — it was cleared, fertilized, tended and protected. The only thing that God expected in return was a good harvest of grapes.

But God only received wild grapes, unfit for harvesting or winemaking. In sorrow and anger, God decided to lay waste the vineyard — it would be trampled, deprived of rain and made unfit for tilling, The song ends with an explanation — God is the owner of the vineyard, which represents Israel. The pleasant harvest that God expected was justice and righteousness, while the wild grapes reflect the bloodshed, unrighteousness and oppression that God actually received. The message was clear: Israel was ungrateful to God and unfaithful to the covenant and would pay accordingly.

How would this song be sung to people of our own time? Humanity has been given untold material abundance, scientific achievement, education and the spiritual teachings of various faiths. All that God has asked is that we share what we have, treat one another with mercy and compassion, care for our common home and dwell in relative peace. Many people have done so. But God has also witnessed numerous wars and atrocities, selfishness that knows no bounds, as well as sickening human exploitation and degradation. The world that we are now experiencing is the laying waste of the vineyard, and it will continue until we wake from our collective spiritual slumber and take to heart all that God has revealed to us.

Many have awakened, and Paul describes them well in his letter to the community at Philippi. They are the ones who pray constantly for others and for the world and they do so with hearts filled with gratitude. They also focus their minds and hearts on whatever is honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise. Paul exhorts them to be selective about what they allow into their minds and hearts, for it would be easy to be overwhelmed by a flood of negative influences from our culture and society.

Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard was sung again many centuries later. As with all singers and tellers of tales, the details change with each new context. In Matthew’s Gospel, the context was the first century and the issue was Jesus as the Messiah and emissary of God. Again, there was the vineyard and the winepress, as well as God’s expectations. The landowner sent slaves — representing the prophets — to collect the produce. But several times the tenants beat or killed these slaves. The landowner decided to send his son — Jesus — thinking that they would respect him. They didn’t — they killed him. Jesus asked his listeners rhetorically what they supposed the landowner would do to the tenants when he returned. The answer was brutal: he would kill them all and lease the vineyard to other tenants who would produce at harvest time. The evangelist saw the destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants as divine retribution, and the new tenants as the followers of Jesus. The story ends with the assertion that the kingdom of God was being taken away from Israel and given to those who would produce the fruits of the kingdom. This in effect delegitimated the Jewish faith.

It is not the view that we hold (or should hold) today, and it is not the teaching of the Church. All people without exception need to produce the fruits of the kingdom if we are to thrive and to walk with God. And as Paul tells us elsewhere, we have all fallen short of the glory of God.