The gardeners among us will really appreciate what is said about God’s vineyard in this Sunday’s readings. We like to see big results from all the hard work we put into growing things. But sometimes there is little to show for all our effort. God must have felt the same way about the vineyard of Israel. The people did not respond to all the spiritual advantages God gave them.
We first see the vineyard image in Isaiah’s oracle. The prophet calls it a song. But it is probably a good thing we no longer have the melody for that song; it would undoubtedly be a sad one. Things go well enough at the beginning. The owner finds an ideal location for the choice vines he intends to plant. He does all he can to insure the outcome will be a good one. The field is cleared of stones and cultivated. A watchtower stands in place to guard against invasion from outside. The owner is so confident of a good harvest he even takes the trouble to shape a wine press out of stone.
But something goes very wrong. The grapes turn out wild and inferior. What could possible be the reason? It must lie somewhere within the character of the plants. This is the lesson Isaiah drives home with his audience. They are the plants and God is the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard represents their own relationship with God. Isaiah wants them to see that God gave them every advantage to be the best servants of heaven they could possibly be. They enjoy the Promised Land; they have the law and the prophets. But none of this reaches their hearts. Deep down their character remains unmoved by God’s generosity and grace. Like the vines in the vineyard they look good on the surface but deep down there is a serious flaw that ruins the outcome. Perhaps judgment is the only option left. This powerful image from Isaiah must have been recalled by the people when the kingdom eventually collapsed.
In Isaiah’s Hebrew the very opposite words “justice” and “outcry” are so close in sound they could easily be mistaken for each other by an untrained ear. It is just a slight shift in sound that makes all the difference. It suggests the people were just that close to being the perfect examples of service God was looking for. Just a little more effort and they would have achieved their purpose.
We see the vineyard image again in the Gospel. In his parable Jesus gives special emphasis to the bloodshed and outcry of Isaiah’s song. The tenants of the vineyard attack and even kill the owner’s representative. Finally they even kill the son of the owner. Parallels with the eventual passion and death of Jesus are unmistakable. The Lord’s target audience is a group of religious leaders who resist his message. By their own admission, the owner of the vineyard would be justified in bringing that wicked crowd “to a bad end.”
But such reprisals are not really high on the Lord’s agenda. Instead Jesus seeks to move their hearts by warning that they will lose the vineyard. The kingdom of God will be given to a people more in tune with God’s saving plan. If the leaders are listening they have so much to gain. But like those who heard Isaiah’s sad song so many centuries before, they apparently remain unmoved.
Paul has just the formula to correct all of this in the second reading. He urges the members of his beloved community in Philippi to direct their thoughts to all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, and worthy of praise. Now that is the kind of harvest God really appreciates.
© Rev. Timothy Schehr