An Evolving Metaphor

Reflection on the readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah presents the story of his “friend,” in some translations his “beloved,” who planted a vineyard, prepared the land, and made ready for the first harvest.  Rather than the expected crop, however, the friend finds only “wild grapes.”  As the closing lines make clear, the vineyard represents the People of God, who produce a harvest of bloodshed and anguish rather than yielding judgment (or righteousness) and justice.  In recompense God is described as no longer cultivating a sacred relationship with those who are unfaithful.

Psalm 80 reinforces the metaphor.  The psalmist both petitions God:

“Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted the son of man whom you yourself made strong” (v. 14)

and promises renewed faithfulness:

“Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.  O LORD, God of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved” (v. 18).

The gospel finds Jesus using many of the same themes, but with a twist.  The vineyard remains a metaphor for the People of God, those whom God claims as part of the kingdom.  Yet the focus is no longer on the failure of the land to produce good fruit.  Instead God is envisioned as the landowner whose tenant-farmers refuse to render the harvest to its proper owner.  Here we have a sense that the people are once again under God’s ultimate care, but that there are others, intermediaries between God and the people, who stand in the way of the people’s relationship to God through the lack of judgment and justice.

The context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel is the increasing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities who reject his teaching authority.  Jesus draws a parallel, then, between the servants the landowner sends and those whom God sent before Jesus, prophets such as Isaiah, who were rejected violently.  Jesus himself fulfills the role of the vineyard-owner’s son killed by the tenants who refuse to acknowledge his authority.  At the conclusion of this parable, the land is not forsaken; rather, the tenants are punished and replaced by others who will render the harvest.

In our own context, it is tempting to interpret this story as a cautionary tale for church leaders.  It seems necessary to honestly inquire whether church officials, ordained or lay, have stood in the way of the relationship between God and the people, or if Jesus’ authority has been rejected in the hope of stealing power and prestige which is not theirs by right.

Yet interpreting Jesus’ parable in this light alone ignores the radical sense that all Christians are responsible for promoting right relationship between their communities and God, that all Christians are capable of failing to render to God what is due, that all Christians may use varying forms of violence in order to claim what is not rightly ours.  Our vision of the world may become so narrowed by greed and self-preservation that we remember only ourselves, others become our possessions, and we no longer view all creation as God’s.

While the parables of Isaiah and Jesus promote stark contrasts, discerning motives can be difficult.  It is not easy to admit my tendencies to produce wild grapes or to acknowledge how I act as a barrier between God and others.  Perhaps part of the key to conversion is in Paul’s exhortation:

“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 6-7).

When my needs are offered to God honestly I recognize more authentically that all I have is from God.  There is no need to reject cultivation, and God’s power is no longer threatening but is realized as a source of goodness for all.  It is then that I may act with others for the judgment and justice of God’s kingdom, rather than my own.