In this strange, almost “apocalyptic” year, as the news reporters often call it, one of the most tragic broadcast sequences displayed the terrible devastation of the superb wine country of California, the Napa Valley. Several vineyards were burnt to cinders, along with wineries that had withstood drought, economic hardship, and even smaller fires for well over a century. This was different. “Apocalyptic” may be the right word after all, because it means “revelation.” And what has been revealed to us in this annus horribilis is soul-shaking.
(Most of the following is lifted from a homily I gave in 2017. Little has changed, it would seem, except to get more dire.)
In today’s gospel, we hear again today about a vineyard, one of Jesus’ favorite images of God’s Realm on earth. Matthew’s gospel uses it three times, and, as we have heard these last three Sundays, they appear one after another in the 20th and 21st chapters. This particular parable also appears in the gospels of Mark and Luke. John’s use of the image is different, the vine being Jesus, and we, his followers, are the branches. Clearly, Jesus liked the ancient symbol. [See Isaiah 5: 1-7, Phil 4: 6-9, and Mat. 21: 33-43.]
Vineyards have been of particular importance in Israel from the earliest times right up to the present. In Scripture, the first mention occurs in Genesis, where Noah is credited not only with being first to cultivate grapes, but first to enjoy the product of his labors to their fermented excess. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy all contain specific injunctions about the care of vineyards, and also the social responsibilities of those who owned them (as well as the danger of over-indulgence in product). Deuteronomy 24: 21 specifies that “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” Then as now, grapes and social justice are linked in surprising ways.
In later centuries, the fate of Israel was portrayed in terms of the prosperity or destruction of the vineyards. In the time of Elijah the prophet, Ahab’s envy of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite leads him to murder and initiates the events which lead to his own death and the fall of the royal family. Vineyards appear in the wisdom literature and the Psalms, particularly the 80th Psalm, chosen for today’s responsorial, which may represent the earliest identification of Israel not so much with the vineyard, but as in the Gospel of John, with the vine:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land…. [Psalm 80:8-15].
It is in the books of the great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel that the most telling images of Israel as the vineyard of God is developed, and nowhere more pointedly or poignantly than in the passage from Isaiah, our first reading. For now the expected harvest yields disappointment, rather than satisfaction. The grapes are not just wild; the Hebrew has “stinking.” These grapes rotted on the vine before they could be plucked. The terraces and protective hedges are in ruins, the vats and towers overturned. Animals root through the vines randomly, and all is gone to ruin. The very real desolation of the Holy Land and Jerusalem itself, soon comes to pass by the permission of God, so that Israel would return to her senses, and justice and peace flourish again in the land.
It is to this image that Jesus calls us in his third parable of the vineyard. Each of Matthew’s vineyard parables is vexed. In the first, dissension arises because of the jealousy of the workers. Then, rivalry and resentment corrupts those who would restrict entrance to the Kingdom to the religious elite. And now, the ferocious possessiveness of the tenants leads to violence and murder, including the killing of the owner’s son and heir. Once again, the welfare of the vineyard has been forfeited by human malice.
Originally, Jesus was most likely speaking of John the Baptist, whose imprisonment and death figures prominently behind these stories of the vineyard. It was John’s preaching of the Coming Kingdom that the scribes and elders resisted, while the tax collectors and prostitutes thronged to the good news. But Matthew’s community clearly sees Jesus as the sacrificial victim, the son who is the last in the line of messengers to be slain because of his commitment to God’s Realm. And again, in both cases, rivalry, resentment, and envy lead to death. Jesus drives the point home first by his challenge: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
The conclusion is unavoidable: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus next says to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? The logic of Kingdom is topsy-turvy, at least as the world judges. “Therefore I tell you,” he concludes, lest there be any misunderstanding, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
In coming weeks, we will see how Jesus presses his challenge to the religious authorities further and how they decide to destroy him. But at this point, you might well wonder what all this has to do with us today.
It is simpler than it looks. The selection of the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi is not merely a continuation from where we left off last week. It is a clear statement of the harvest God’s Realm requires of its citizens, the bright counterleaf of the sorrows predicted by Isaiah and Jesus. The opposite of resentment, rivalry, and murderous possessiveness is what Paul exhorts his readers to cultivate: peace of mind and heart, a devotion to truth, honesty, social justice, and purity of intention…
Returning to the present, the current annus horribilis still has months to go. Please God, it will not worsen, but usher in a time of healing. Government inaction in the clear advance of global climate change may have cost the world the opportunity to prevent calamities such as the wildfires in the western US (and, lest we forget, other parts of the world), as well as unprecedented storms and floods. But we can still mitigate the disaster at our doorstep with wise, compassionate, and inclusive care for the planet, its people, and generations to come. May the present generation be recalled as a blessing, not a curse.
We have some work ahead of us.