Bad Grapes or Good Grapes?
Planting a vineyard is planting for a long-term investment and relationship, a labor that will not yield its grapes, and more importantly its wine, for several years. Just ask our local grape grower Debi Gust-Boerema, who inherited 18 acres from her parents, Red and Peggy Gust, and attends to approximately 1,500 meticulously cared for grape vine plants that slope across a hill that once grew alfalfa and corn silage.
Isaiah in our first reading compares God’s people to a vineyard that has yielded bad grapes. All that loving labor, the carefully prepared soil, the sunny hillside well-chosen, the selected vine stock planted, the hedge to keep out the wild deer – and the neighbor’s goats – the tower and the wine-press.
God invested for a long-term relationship with His people, but they have rendered only sour grapes, violence and oppression. Well then, Isaiah prophesies, God was disappointed with His vineyard. He created and tended it out of his love. He had chosen a people for himself. But they turned their backs on Him and were unfaithful, and so they would pay the price. However, God will save a remnant and they can be rebuilt into a wonderful vineyard.
Jesus uses the same imagery in our parable today, but his emphasis is very different. For Jesus the problem lies not with the vineyard but with the tenant-farmers. The vineyard produces its grapes and from them the wine for drinking. However the tenants will not give the land-owner his due. Such share-cropping arrangements, with the landowner and the tenants splitting the produce were normal agricultural business practice in Jesus’ time.
However, when the tenants beat up and kill the master’s agents, they don’t complain that they cannot afford the rent and buy clothes for their children. This is not a peasant rebellion against an unjust landlord. The tenants’ motive is from pure greed, they want the vineyard for themselves. They even kill the owner’s son and heir.
The judgment is pronounced against the tenants, and new tenants will be found to deliver the produce in due season. The parable is not told against the vineyard which symbolizes God’s people, unlike Isaiah’s parable. The parable is told against the contemporary religious leaders. It is a call for a fresh leadership of God’s people, a leadership who will allow the vineyard to flourish and render to God the fruit.
The key to this new leadership is the son, who in our parable was thrown out of the vineyard and killed. Jesus was killed outside the city, outside the vineyard of the Lord, noting that in Jesus’ time Jerusalem and particularly the temple could be identified as the vineyard of the Lord. Jesus cast out of the vineyard, is the keystone who holds together the new building, the new temple of God, the vineyard of the Lord.
Today’s Gospel is a warning for all who work in the kingdom of God; bishops, priests, deacons, Catholic school and CCD teachers, coordinators of religious education and others. The vineyard is God’s vineyard, not our vineyard. As such, ministers of the Church should never labor apart from or worse in opposition to God and His teachings. The fruits of a healthy vineyard, are God’s people living the Gospel teachings faithfully.