God's Vineyard

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Peter Harries considers what the fruit of God's vineyard might be.

27thOTPlanting a vineyard is planting for a relationship. A vineyard is a long-term investment, a labour that will not yield its grapes, and more importantly its wine, for several years. The wine produced is not essential for our day-to-day survival, after all we could live without wine, but wine does give cheer to our hearts. It gives great pleasure.

Isaiah in our first reading compares God’s people to a vineyard that has yielded bad grapes. All that loving labour, the soil carefully prepared, the sunny hillside well-chosen, the selected vine stock planted, the hedge to keep out the wild deer – and the neighbour’s goats – the tower and the wine-press, all loving prepared. God has lovingly protected his people, and they have rendered only sour grapes, violence and oppression. Well then, Isaiah prophesies, God will destroy this vineyard. The vineyard was not necessary for God, and yet he created and tended it out of his love. He had chosen a people for himself. They were unfaithful and they will be destroyed. Except of course, Isaiah tells us later on, of the hope that God will save a remnant and they can rebuild after the destruction, after the judgement.

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. Such arrangements, now as then, are frequently exploitative and unjust. 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 named as pure greed, they want the vineyard for themselves. They even kill the owner’s son and heir. Perhaps they think that in future years they can then legally claim the vineyard as their own property on the grounds that the legitimate owner had abandoned it.

The judgement 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 symbolises God’s people, unlike Isaiah’s parable. The parable is told against the contemporary religious leaders. So this parable is specifically not a rejection of the Jewish people, although bad scholars have tried to use it in an anti-Semitic way. 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 supplements this parable with another parable identifying himself as the keystone which holds the whole building together. The stone rejected by the builders, is the stone which holds everything together. 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.

Some texts of Matthew’s gospel here add a puzzling verse. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him. It is an odd verse but shows us that Jesus who is the stone is also the judge, the judge of the living and of the dead - as we profess every Sunday in the Creed.

But how is this good news today? I suggest it may be a warning for all who work in the kingdom of God, priests and others. The vineyard is God’s vineyard, not our vineyard. Unlike the bad tenants we should labour not for our own financial or psychological benefit, but for God. The fruits of the vineyard, God’s pleasure, are peace and integrity, not greed and oppression.

Fr. Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.