• Isa 5:1-7
• Psa 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20
• Phil 4:6-9
• Matt 21:33-43
Vineyards are mentioned throughout Scripture, beginning with a description of Noah as the “first tiller of the soil” who planted a vineyard (Gen 9:20). There are dozens of references to vineyards, vines, and wine throughout the Bible. In the ancient Near East wine was a necessity, especially when good drinking water was not easily available.
Thus, vineyards and wine were oft-repeated images of sustenance, life, and well-being. Those in possession of a well-tended vineyard were in possession of life, while those who lost their vineyard through sloth or something else were portrayed as lacking life and a future. The prophets often drew up this when speaking of the covenant and both the curses and the future blessings that God would eventually grant to his people, when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (Amos 9:13).
In the Gospels, the meaning of vineyards is deepened and broadened, especially in the parables of Jesus. “What does the image of the vineyard call to mind?” asked St. John Paul II in a homily in 1997. “Following the Gospel texts, we could say that it represents the whole created cosmos which, through Christ’s coming, becomes God’s property in a special way.”
It seems clear that Jesus, in the parable of the wicked tenets, drew upon Isaiah 5 in addressing the chief priests and the elders. It is a striking parable, not least because of its complexity and how overtly allegorical it is, for the landowner, tenants, servants, and son all represent specific people. The landowner is God, the tenants are the chief priests and other religious leaders, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus himself.
But there is even more to it, a broader and deeper understanding that goes hand and hand with the immediate message to the Jewish religious leaders. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains in the third volume of his masterful commentary, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World (Ignatius Press, 2012), the symbolic language of the parable “contains the whole of human salvation,” echoing the insight of John Paul II.
The parable presents salvation history in four parts. First, it looks back at Creation and the choosing of Israel: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…” Through Israel, God began to reveal himself and his plan of salvation. The second part involved the sending of numerous prophets, including the greatest prophet, Moses, up through John the Baptist: “When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce…” The prophets were men of God’s word, calling the people back to the Law and the covenant, but usually with little success: “But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.” Jesus, of course, strongly condemned the scribes and Pharisees as “sons of those who murdered the prophets” (see Mt 23:29-37).
Third, God sends a final messenger: “Finally, he sent his son to them…” The Incarnation ushers in the final age, in which redemption is offered to everyone through the saving power of the Cross and the witness of the Church. The final part refers to The End and is presented as a question: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” The eschaton will be a time of judgment and clarity, observes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “when the Lord will return visibly to his vineyard, his world, looking for the ripe fruit he has intended it to bear from the beginning of creation.”
A central action is the transference of the Kingdom from Israel to the Church. Here again, there is a broadening and deepening. The Kingdom is broadened to encompass the entire world, and it is deepened in that belonging to it is not a matter of ethnicity but of grace. The life of the family of God is not found in merely human geneologies, but in the gift of Trinitarian life through the Incarnate Son of God.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 5, 2014, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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