First reading: Isaiah 5:1-7.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 79(80):9, 12-16, 19-20.
Second reading: Philippines 4:6-9.
Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43.
Link to readings.
Aside from the second reading, all elements of today's scriptural offerings cohere around the image of the vineyard. But the First Reading, the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel, take up the image in rather different ways, even if in all three cases it is clear that the vineyard represents Israel.
The First Reading, from Isaiah 5:1-7, seems to record a "song" or poem the prophet has composed for a close friend who has had a disappointing experience with a vineyard. The prophet then uses his friend's experience with the vineyard as an allegory of God's experience with Israel, imaged, as so often, as the Lord's "vineyard".
The landowner's love for his vineyard and his eager anticipation of enjoying its fruits is shown by all the measures taken to ensure its productivity: located on a fertile hillside (rich soil and good drainage); cleared of stones; planted with the choicest vines; guarded by a watchtower and protective wall; a winepress ready to process its produce as soon as it is ready. How unexpected, then, the yield of sour grapes. How understandable the disappointment of the owner and the destructive measures he takes, in such contrast to the love and care he had shown before.
The application of the "song" to Israel-in both positive and negative respects-is obvious and telling. Israel has received from God all the love and protection suggested by all landowner's activity in regard to the vineyard. God has looked, then, to receiving a rich return on all this attention. But instead of "justice" and "integrity", the only produce is "bloodshed" and "a cry of distress".
Remarkable here is the way in which the image serves the prophetic concern that the faithfulness and love Israel has received from God should have been reproduced as social justice in all its forms. Instead, what has resulted is the "sour grapes" of violence against the vulnerable and cries from the poor who have been wronged. In this way, the reading gives a response and explanation to question uttered in the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 79): "Why have you broken down its walls?" It is not external forces that have ravaged the vineyard (now, more specifically "the vine") but corruption-lack of social justice-within.
The parable that makes up almost all the Gospel, Matt 21:33-43, clearly picks up several features of Isaiah's "song" of his friend's vineyard. Once again, the "vineyard" is Israel but how, exactly, Jesus meant the parable to be understood and how we should interpret and explain today are matters of considerable delicacy. This is one of four or five texts in the Gospels most open to anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish readings and proclamation.
While it is not all that easy to discern the exact shape of the parable as told by Jesus, we can be fairly sure that he told it against the religious leadership in Jerusalem in his day. They have resisted the prophetic messengers sent by God, the last of whom was himself; they have shown themselves to be usurpers, attempting to control and retain for themselves the vineyard (Israel) and its produce (the life of the people). The arrival of the Kingdom (or Rule) of God will mean for them dispossession and retribution.
Subsequently, the early Church retold the parable in the light of its knowledge of the death and resurrection of Jesus and its belief in his status (God's Son). Strongly colouring its understanding of the parable is its bitter awareness of the "No" given to the Gospel by the great bulk of Israel and its keen sense of itself, made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, as the community (literally, "nation") to whom the Kingdom is now being given (v 43). Through the continuing presence of the risen Lord ("Emmanuel") to the end of the age (1:23; 28:20), they can and ought produce the "fruits" that God desires from the "vineyard".
Today, we can move on from the early community's preoccupation with the "No" of Israel and concentrate, as the First Reading suggests, upon the "fruits" that God looks to see produced within a new vineyard. The parabolic le gives no grounds for Christian triumphalism at Jewish expense. God has made the "rejected" stone, the crucified and risen Lord, the cornerstone of the "building" (the "vineyard" image changes to an architectural one) that is the community of the Church. The question for us is whether the "song" (Isaiah 5:1) sung over the vineyard is one of delight or disappointment. Inevitably, a bit of both. But, in either case, it will always be a song of the Friend's love for the vineyard.
The attractive exhortation Paul provides in the Second Reading, Phil 4:6-9, offers guidance for maintaining peace on both an individual (peace within) and communal level.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media