Vines are tended and grapes are picked in a vineyard. In ancient Israel grapes were a major agricultural product, used especially for eating and for making wine. Throughout the biblical period the vineyard was part of everyday life for many in Israel. So it is not surprising that the vineyard became a biblical symbol for the people of God.
The most famous use of the vineyard symbolism in the Old Testament appears in Isaiah 5, where we are told, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” In his “song” of the vineyard Isaiah recalls the careful and loving treatment that the owner (God) gave to his vineyard (Israel). Yet the vineyard yielded only wild grapes (sin and rebellion). Out of frustration the owner threatens to destroy the vineyard (by means of the Assyrian army) and make it into a ruin.
The historical context for Isaiah’s song of the vineyard was an attack expected against Jerusalem by the Assyrian army in the eighth century B.C. Isaiah foresaw that such an attack would have disastrous effects for Judah, just as an earlier attack had on the northern kingdom of Israel. The only way the disaster might be averted, according to Isaiah, was for Judah to put aside its sinful and rebellious ways, and to try once more to do God’s will as the chosen people of God. However, the way in which Isaiah’s song of the vineyard is expressed held out little hope for such a conversion.
The vineyard image also appears in today’s excerpts from Psalm 80. The psalmist describes Israel’s origin as God’s people in terms of a vine (“a vine from Egypt you transplanted”), comments on the sorry state of God’s vine and asks God once more to care for and protect his beloved vine. The psalmist very likely had in mind Judah’s experience of defeat and exile in the early sixth century B.C. Even though Isaiah’s warning had been fulfilled, the vine remained the object of God’s care.
The vineyard image appears also in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21. As the text now stands, the parable is clearly a kind of allegory. The landowner is God, the vineyard is Israel as God’s special people, the tenants are the political and religious leaders of Israel, the harvest is the fullness of God’s kingdom and the judgment that will accompany it, the servants sent to collect the landowner’s produce are the prophets, and the landowner’s son is Jesus.
The parable begins by describing God’s extraordinary care for the vineyard in terms clearly alluding to Isaiah 5. When the tenants abuse the servants and the son, the owner comes and destroys the wicked tenants. In Matthew’s context this is very likely an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem not only in 587 B.C. but also in A.D. 70. Note, however, that the vineyard itself is preserved and placed under new management. Note also that the chief priests and elders of the people recognize that the parable is being told about them. They need to be replaced as the leaders of God’s people.
These three vineyard texts insist that God remains in personal relationship with his people, continues to care for and preserve them and stays faithful even when the people fail to do so. Thus the vineyard is an image of hope: it emphasizes God’s continuing care for his people. Christians believe that through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection the people of God has come under new and different leadership from that of the Jewish chief priests and elders. Nevertheless, through Jesus of Nazareth the church retains its historical and organic relationship with Israel as God’s people. The problem that Jesus and Matthew had was not with the owner (God) or the vineyard itself (God’s people). Rather, it was with the tenants (the leaders). The New Testament parable of the vineyard teaches us to look forward in hope to the fullness of God’s kingdom under the guidance of the risen Jesus as Emmanuel, the one who promises to be with us until the end of this age (Mt 28:20).
In the meantime Paul’s advice to the Philippians can help us to promote peace at the individual, communal and international levels. Paul contends that peace of soul is a gift from God, that God’s peace surpasses human understanding and that “the God of peace” will be with us. But God’s gift of peace needs to be cultivated through prayer, virtuous living and fidelity to the Gospel.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “God's Vineyard,” in the September 29, 2008, issue.