It’s said there are only a few basic plots for most stories.
What the storyteller does with the plot—the twists and turns that are added—is what makes a story memorable. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus takes a story of a vineyard, which would have been very familiar to his audience, and gives it an unexpected twist.
The priests and elders whom Jesus was addressing would have been very accustomed to the image of Israel as a vineyard. Prophets like Isaiah in the first reading had used the illustration for hundreds of years. So Jesus' audience probably wasn’t expecting him to use the story against them.
Instead of focusing on the poor fruit that the vineyard was producing, Jesus concentrates on the tenants who are responsible for tending the fields. He says that when the master wants his produce, the tenants mistreat and even kill the messengers. When the owner finally sends his own son, the tenants kill even him.
In hearing that story, the priests and elders had to have realized that they were the tenants who hadn’t been good stewards of the master’s fields. They had to see that they were the ones who rejected the prophets sent by God. They might not, however, have completely understood that the person telling the story, Jesus, was the Son of God and that in a very short period of time, he would be rejected and put to death.
We do know and so we are forced to ask ourselves the question: What kind of a tenant am I in the Father’s vineyard? Am I welcoming the Son when he comes to the vineyard to collect the produce, or am I rejecting him by failing to produce good fruit in my words and deeds?
The vineyard of the LORD is the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7).
The vineyard has yielded wild grapes, according to Isaiah, not a fruit suitable for vintage, despite the fact that what were planted were “the choicest vines.” That is, the fault in the harvest isn’t with the divine Vintner who planted the vines with the intention of harvesting fruit for wine, but with the vines themselves. The clear meaning is that Israel hasn’t been true to her calling to be a counter-cultural witness to the nations of steadfast worship of the One True God.
God says, “Judge between me and my vineyard” and threatens to “make it a ruin.” Judgment passages like this one are always difficult to read. The “thanks be to God” that we say at the close of the first reading seems a bit limp when we get a passage like this. Of course, that limpness in our response expresses the way we ought to feel. After all, it’s for good reason that we make the words of Isaiah our own in the Psalm response. We are Israel and the judgment pronounced on her always stands as warning to us. We need to bear fruit for the Lord—fruit that’s worthy of vintage.
God's peace will guard your hearts and minds (Philippians 4:6-9).
This reading sounds rather like good horticultural advice on how to tend the vineyard of the Lord. Pray, think, and live “according to what you have learned and accepted,” he tells us. Root out the weeds of anxiety. Add the nourishment of thoughts “wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise.” Prune your lives so that your actions reflect the teaching of the Gospel and you’ll bear the fruit of your labors, which is peace.
We might ask ourselves if we live in the hope of the Lord, free of anxiety, or in the midst of such a whirl of expectations and activity that we’re never really free of worry at all. Are our minds as pristine as those Paul commends, or are they rather a constant media fare of violence, impurity, and scandal? Have we made the Gospel our guide in life, or have we taken a secularized view of the Church and the world as the measure of our actions? If in each or any of these we see ourselves in the latter rather than the former, ought we to expect the fruit of peace when we’ve cultivated discord in our souls?
The kingdom of God will be given to those who will produce its fruit (Matthew 21:33-43)
Jesus says bluntly in this parable, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will yield a rich harvest.” Here Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God was already in the world at his coming and that the Jews were the current heirs of it. If the kingdom is synonymous with the covenant, as this passage suggests, then the New Testament is filled with covenant language, since the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God is one of the central elements in Jesus’ teaching and preaching.
The linguistic shift from “covenant” to “kingdom” may be precisely indicative of the prophecy that Jesus utters about the passing of the vineyard to “others who will see to it that he has grapes at vintage time.” The new tenants, the faithful Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, might have felt more at home with a new designation for the covenant that they were now to inherit. Since Jesus was the new Son of David, what better way to designate the new Davidic covenant than as the definitive “kingdom of God.”
As we get closer to the end of the Church year, we continue to hear some of Jesus’ most famous parables. This week it is the story of a vineyard, as told to the chief priests and elders.
Please watch the short Opening the Word video on FORMED.org to hear what the presenter has to tell us.
According to the presenter, the parable of the vineyard would have been familiar to Jesus’ audience, but Jesus gave it a surprise ending. What was the surprise?
How does the parable of the vineyard apply to the history of Israel?
Digging Deeper: Grapes and Vineyards
Grapes were an important food crop in ancient Israel. Although they were primarily used for wine, they were also eaten fresh as well as dried into raisins. Grapes were also used to produce grape honey, a thick, sweet liquid. Grape honey was made by treading the grapes and then boiling the liquid to evaporate the water and create a syrup. Grapes are mentioned more than fifty times in the Bible.