Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sunday 27A: The VINEYARD in the Bible

Philip Uffenbach (1566-1636), Parable of the Tenants and the Vineyard Owner

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year "A") - October 3, 2011

[Texts: Isaiah 5.1-7 [Psalm 80]; Philippians 4.6-9; Matthew 21.33-43]

Three scriptural texts today—the reading from Isaiah, the psalm and Jesus' gospel parable—speak of God's vineyard.  The vineyard represents both God's chosen people Israel and the church.

It is unclear when Psalm 80 was written or which calamities caused Israel to cry out, “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?” and to beg, “restore us, O God, let your face shine that we might be saved”.

The Greek Bible adds a superscription to the psalm “concerning the Assyrians”, referring to the conquest of Samaria in 721 B.C.

Still, as one commentator observed, “whatever the historical setting, the psalm in its continued use belongs to the repertoire of the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history” (J.L. Mays).  Or, in the words of the Protestant reformer Calvin, “This is a sorrowful prayer, in which the faithful beseech God that he would be graciously pleased to succour his afflicted Church”.

This lamentation reminds God of past saving deeds as a prelude to pleading for divine intervention in the present dire circumstances.  Thus, the exodus is narrated as a transplantation of God's vine from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.”

Israel flourished in its new habitat, and grew luxuriantly, culminating in the vast Davidic kingdom which extended from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates (“it stretched out its branches to the Sea and its shoots to the River”).

After such promising beginnings, the psalmist wonders how God could allow the vine to be devoured, ravaged by the beasts of the field.  At times biblical thinking fails to distinguish between primary and secondary causes, so that the actions of an enemy of Israel are attributed to God, “Why then have you broken down its walls...?”

The question receives no answer; instead the psalmist reiterates Israel's plea, “Turn again (=repent), O God of hosts...have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted”.

Isaiah's “Song of the Vineyard” addressed what went wrong with God's planting, Israel.  Singing a harvest time song, the prophet told on his friend—“my beloved”—God's behalf how the divine vinedresser did everything necessary to succeed in viniculture (“he dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines”) and made it secure (“he built a watchtower in the midst of it”).

Having “hewed out a wine vat in it”, God had hopes that Israel's grapes would be lush and the wine sweet. Instead, the vineyard produced “wild grapes” and sour wine.  Israel yielded “bloodshed” and “a cry” instead of the fruits God expected (“justice” and “righteousness”).  The disappointed owner (“what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”) decided to let the vineyard go to rack and ruin until a more promising time.

It has been suggested that in today's gospel Jesus followed an old form of synagogue address, producing a part of the Scripture lesson for the day (Isaiah 5.1-2), illuminating it with a parable and underscoring his words with further biblical passages such as Psalm 118.22 and Daniel 2.34-35, 44-45, which follow the close of today's gospel reading (Matthew 21.44-46).

So today's gospel parable becomes an allegory that speaks about faithlessness and judgment and in which many elements have symbolic value (e.g. vineyard=Israel; householder=God; tenant farmers=leaders of Israel; fruit=what is owed God; rejection of the servants=rejection of the prophets; sending and rejection of the son=sending and rejection of Jesus; tenants punished=Jerusalem destroyed; new tenants=church).

The judgment Jesus pronounced after the interpretation of his parable, “therefore..., the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom” has been seen as implying that the church takes Israel's place as God's chosen. 

Strict attention to details of the parable suggests it is the religious leaders who are rejected, and no conclusion may be drawn about God's continuing relationship with his people Israel.  Implied in the parable's judgment, however, is a warning to the church, especially its leaders, to show fruits of righteousness and so escape condemnation.

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