The theme of God’s unfailing love for us – a love which we so often spurn – runs through our readings today. The Bible offers a startling panorama of such spurned love and Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard is a poignant reminder of it. At the outset we are not told who the speaker is, nor what the relationship is between the parties of the love song.
Only later do we learn that God is the one who is singing of his beloved Israel. God’s attentiveness for his people and land is expressed in the verbs “dug, cleared, planted, built, hewed out”. Such verbs speak of complete and demanding devotion. Tragically, the people fail to live up to their high calling, so “the vineyard” is destroyed, abandoned – the people go into exile. Instead of the “justice” (Hebrew: mishpat) God had sought, there had been “bloodshed” (Hebrew: mishpach). Instead of the “righteousness” God expected (Hebrew: tzedakah), Israel produced “outcry” (Hebrew: tze’akah). With such remarkable wordplay in the Hebrew text, the poet has moved from the language of agriculture to that of relationships within society/community, always the most important concern of the prophets.
This text and its imagery are taken up in imaginative ways in the New Testament. Today’s gospel is a midrash/commentary on Isaiah’s song. Matthew gives the story a decisive christological turn: the accent now is not on the vineyard as such, but on the “owner’s son” who is heir, murdered by the tenants. The relationship of vine and branches is taken up in John’s Gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So the branches are expected to “bear fruit” as in Isaiah’s love song. Here, the fruit is “love”, but such love is not far removed from Israel’s notion of “justice and righteousness”. In all the gospels, as in Matthew, the parable becomes an allegory of the rejection of Jesus by the Jerusalem establishment. Tragically, the interpretation of the transfer of the vineyard to other tenants has fostered anti-Semitism throughout the ages. The parable as spoken by Jesus had a more fundamental meaning: the utterly illogical action of the owner in sending the son reflects the pattern in which a long-suffering and compassionate God reaches out to humanity in the face of the most blatant forms of apostasy and idolatry (see Hosea 11-12). This parable expresses what the Jewish writer, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book, God in Search of Man, has called “the divine pathos”, which is the great paradox of biblical faith – God’s loving pursuit of humanity. Today’s gospel is often called “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants”; a better title for it might be “The Parable of the Long-Suffering God”.
Matthew does not revel in the destruction of the wicked tenants, but turns their fate back on his hearers, his emerging Christian community, stressing twice that they must bear fruit. He wants them to look to their Jewish heritage not only as a warning but as guidance for their life. And we must do the same. Isaiah summoned the earlier tenants to justice and righteousness: “Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Those of us who do not bear similar fruit will hear the ominous words of Jesus, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). This is also Paul’s call to the Christians at Philippi, which he wants to be a community “bearing fruit” – “Let your tolerance/gentleness be evident to everyone”. The basic sense of the Greek word epeikes in the text here for “tolerance/gentleness” is “seemly/decent/just”, so Paul could be pleading for these Christians to be good citizens or members of this community which clearly was experiencing internal problems. Echoes of both Isaiah and Matthew.
The psalmist says in Psalm 79, which also speaks of Israel as God’s “vine”, destroyed because of the people’s spurning of his love: “God of hosts, turn again, we implore … and we shall never forsake you again.” That is the prayer of the Jewish community as it celebrates its New Year (yesterday was Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement) at this precious time of penitence and “returning” to the God who loves us so much – and it is our prayer, too.