Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 4: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Care for the vineyard

Is 5:1-7; Ps 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43

I remember the first time I traveled south from Jerusalem to Hebron nearly 50 years ago. It was October and vineyards lined the road for most of the 35-mile trip, their branches sagging with bunches of bright purple grapes ready for the picking. 

Unlike vineyards we see in Europe and in the United States, Palestinian farmers do not string the vines along arbors but allow the plants to hug the ground. There were hedgerows surrounding most of the vineyards to keep away the rabbits and foxes.

Small stone watchtowers stood in the middle of the fields. Farmers perched there keeping watch on their crops in those last precious days before harvest. Thieves were known, then and now, to swoop in and strip the grapes from their vines when they were ready for market.

I realized that if one took away the modern paved road and the electric wires, those scenes on the rolling hills leading south to the ancient city of Hebron were little different than what Jesus and his Jewish ancestors saw when they walked that same route centuries ago.

The hedges, the watchtowers and, most of all, the vineyards flush with grapes, with the promise of wine and food, were sources of joy and nourishment. No wonder care for the vineyard became one of the Bible’s most enduring symbols for God’s care for Israel.

One of the most famous of such texts is our first reading for this Sunday from the prophet Isaiah. The Lord laments the plight of a friend who planted a vineyard on a fertile hillside, cultivated it, built a tower, prepared a wine press and waited eagerly for the harvest. He was disappointed when, despite his care, the vineyard yielded only wild grapes instead of plump, sweet grapes (still known today as Hebron grapes). 

This vineyard symbolizes God’s people, Israel. Despite God’s loving care, they produce bitter fruit instead of rich, sweet grapes. Isaiah portrays God’s deep disappointment, like a parent stricken by the ingratitude of a wayward child. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!”

The counterpart to the prophet’s lament is the earnest prayer of the responsorial Psalm 89 that also uses the symbol of the vineyard as an image of God’s care for his people. “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 … 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.”

Jesus, too, savored the image of a vine as a symbol of God’s people, drawing directly on the comparison made by Isaiah before him. The parable about the landowner who has a deadly struggle with the tenants of his vineyard becomes an allegory of God’s sometimes frantic relationship with his people, a struggle that continues into the lifetime of Jesus himself. 

The tenants boldly reject the servants sent by the owner to acquire his harvest. When they dare to reject the owner’s son and kill him, the owner punishes them severely. The point of Jesus’ parable is drawn by Matthew at its conclusion: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

The “you” in this verse refers to the religious leaders who in Matthew’s Gospel consistently reject and condemn Jesus. God’s vineyard belongs instead to those who “produce its fruit,” the good works of Jew and Gentile.

The second reading from Philippians is one of Paul’s most beautiful passages and comes as a respite from the texts about our chronic failures. “Have no anxiety at all. … With thanksgiving make your requests known to God. … The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”



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