There is something exotic about a vineyard. But then I am from the Midwest, where the landscape is dotted with dairy farms. And I am a city girl, who never experienced the rigors or disappointments associated with cultivating a crop. (I do remember that, like many others, my grandfather made wine in the cellar, which was hardly exotic!) I am sure that my fascination with viticulture can be traced back to the Bible stories of my early childhood. I concluded that any land that produced figs, dates and wine must have been wondrous.
In painting pictures of vineyards, today’s readings lead us through the development of two themes: God’s tender loving care and the undependability of those entrusted with the vineyard. Like good theologians, the biblical writers used what they knew from experience as a metaphor to tell us something about God and God’s dealings with us. This is clearly seen in the reading from Isaiah. The picture sketched there by the prophet is both sensitive and disheartening. The vineyard was carefully planted and cared for, yet it did not produce a crop of luscious, sweet grapes. Instead, it brought forth wild grapes.
Though the prophet states, “My friend had a vineyard,” it is clear that God is really the vinedresser. The details of the metaphor emphasize the great effort put into preparing the kind of soil necessary to ensure a rich and abundant yield. Spading and clearing away stones, done by hand in ancient Israel, demonstrate God’s painstaking commitment to this future vineyard. When the preparatory work was completed and the tender young vines were placed in the soil, the vinedresser constructed a watchtower to provide protection against possible predatory animals and unscrupulous poachers. What are we to make of God’s tender loving care?
The psalm re-enforces this description of God’s providential care. While the prophet focused on the land that would become the vineyard, the psalmist speaks about the vine itself. It was transplanted from Egypt. God uprooted it from foreign soil where it could not thrive, solicitously carried it across the desert and then carefully planted it in the soil that had been meticulously prepared.
Here too we see that despite God’s tender loving care, the walls meant to protect the vineyard were breached, and the precious vineyard was violated. One gets the sense that, as was the case in the passage from Isaiah, the vineyard was responsible for its own devastation.
The attentiveness of the landowner in the Gospel corresponds with the description of the vinedresser found in Isaiah. But the parable focuses on those to whom the vineyard was entrusted rather than on the preparation of the land or the vine that was planted. The unscrupulous tenants plotted to appropriate both the grape harvest and the vineyard itself. What made them think that killing the heir would entitle them to the land? There seems to have been a law in Israel that in the absence of the owner, property could be claimed by those who were able to secure immediate possession. The tenants were well positioned to make this move.
In none of these passages is God an absentee landlord, unconcerned with the vineyard. The Isaian passage plainly testifies to God’s disappointment and ultimate dismantling of the once-cherished land. The psalm also states that it was God who broke down the walls, allowing every passerby to pluck the fruit and animals to overrun the vineyard. Divine anger is most clearly depicted in the Gospel parable. This may be due to the treachery that is explicitly outlined.
What is the message here? In the first reading and the psalm response, the vineyard is the house of Israel. In the Gospel it is identified as the reign of God. In each instance, God goes to great lengths to prepare this wondrous blessing. But those who should have enjoyed it defy God’s plan, and so God responds angrily. Only the first reading ends on a note of outrage and punishment. The psalm includes a plea for salvation and new life, and the Gospel states that God’s blessings will endure, even if bestowed on other people.
We too have been invited into this vineyard, this reign of God. But we must remember that it really belongs to God. If anything, we are but tenants on the land. This means that we have obligations to the landowner. Paul lays out some of them. He tells us to commit ourselves to “whatever is true...honorable...just...pure...holy...gracious.”
In inviting us to enjoy the riches of this vineyard, God has shown us tender loving care that is unfathomable. All God asks in return is faithfulness. Not simply obedience to impersonal laws, but the kind of faithfulness that wells up in us when we know that we are loved and cherished and cared for, the kind of faithfulness that seeks to respond to God’s love wholeheartedly.