In the Scriptures, the Kingdom of God is often described with images from everyday life. Today’s readings use the images of vines and vineyards to illustrate God’s relationship with us. The prophet Isaiah tells the story of a landowner who did everything necessary to produce good wine. He worked on the land, cultivated it, built a watchtower, hewed out a winepress, and planted the choicest vines – all in expectation of a fruitful harvest. However, the outcome was not what he expected: the vines produced bad fruit, wild grapes.
What does Isaiah’s parable mean? Who is the landowner and what does this vineyard represent? The Responsorial Psalm makes it clear that the landowner is the Lord, and “the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” The Chosen People are the “vine from Egypt” which God transplanted. He prepared the Promised Land for them; he “spaded it, cleared it of stones…”; he “drove away the nations” and planted Israel there, in a fertile land, flowing with milk and honey. God did everything for his vineyard, and he rightly expected the Israelites to produce fruits of righteousness and to be witnesses to unbelievers. But they produced wild grapes; they gave him fruits of sin, iniquity and rebellion. Therefore God took away his protection and let his vineyard be trampled by other nations. This prophecy was fulfilled when the Assyrians and the Babylonians conquered Israel. The psalmist laments, “Why have you broken down its walls so that every passer-by plucks its fruit, the boar from the forest lays it waste, and the beasts of the field feed upon it?”
Jesus uses the same image in today’s Gospel parable. But he develops it by adding three additional elements: the tenants, the landowner’s servants and the son. This shifts our attention away from the vines and onto the people responsible for them. It is not the vines that go bad but the tenants themselves. Instead of turning over the produce to the owner, they treat his servants with violence and even murder some of them. When the owner sends his son, they brutally kill him as well.
The parable is an allegory: the tenants represent the religious leaders who were given the responsibility to take care of God’s people and help them bear good fruit worthy of the day of judgment. The servants sent by the owner represent the prophets. God does not simply demand and punish but patiently and mercifully sends prophets to call his people to repentance and to faithfulness. The prophets show that God is rich in mercy. And, lastly, we know that the owner’s son represents Jesus: God sent his only Son into the vineyard of the world. But, like the servants who were sent before him, he also suffered at the hands of the religious leaders and was killed.
What should be done with such tenants? When Jesus asks this question, his listeners declare that the owner would be fully justified in destroying the wicked tenants and starting over with others. However, Jesus does not come to exactly the same conclusion. Instead of agreeing with their judgment – which is in fact a self-incriminating one – he goes beyond the strict demands of justice and quotes the mysterious line from Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.” “Did you never read this?” Jesus asks. Of course the chief priests have read it, and know it well, but they do not know what it means. They cannot see so far into the mercy of God. They have concluded that the rejection of the son in the parable would naturally lead to the destruction of the wicked tenants. How could they ever foresee that God’s plan is the complete opposite of what they think: the death of the Son has led not to our destruction but to our redemption! Jesus himself is the “rejected stone” who has become the “cornerstone,” and it is wonderful in our eyes!
Pope Benedict XVI reflects on this marvel of divine mercy in his encyclical God is Love: “Jesus’ death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form” (Deus Caritas Est, 12).
In the Gospel, Jesus tells the chief priests that, indeed, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” This does not mean that God reaches a limit to his mercy and gives up on anyone. It means that if we persist in opposing God’s love for us – a love fully revealed in the sacrifice of the Son – then we exclude ourselves from his Kingdom. God’s plan is ultimately not defeated by human sin, but if we refuse the remedy for sin, then we make ourselves into wicked tenants, and we bring upon ourselves the effects of that self-destructive choice.
The good news – the wonder – is that God’s love has already set us free from sin. We have no reason for anxiety that the Kingdom will be taken away from us, as long as we put our trust in him. St. Paul’s advice in the second reading is full of wisdom for every worker in the Lord’s vineyard: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This inner peace, the gift of the God of peace, is one of the great fruits of being counted among the Lord’s beloved servants.
Are sin, iniquity and rebellion some of the fruits I cultivate in my vineyard? Do I rely on the mercy and love of God as I labor each day? As a laborer of God, do I experience the great fruit of inner peace, a gift from God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.