“When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Is 5:4)
How are you helping to produce good fruit in the vineyard?
What fruit should the vineyard have produced? Isaiah writes that choice vines were planted, but they yielded only wild grapes. The Hebrew word for wild grapes has as its root a word that means “to stink” or “to smell bad.” The Greek version of Isaiah has instead of “wild grapes” the word for thorns. Stinking, thorny fruit grew in the vineyard; God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” This vineyard’s bounty was of no value. But farmers know that land can be rehabilitated. Later Isaiah speaks about a day in the future when the vineyard will be pleasant again and when “Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6).
Jesus returns us to the vineyard in his parable, and it seems that the vineyard was now producing good fruit, which the owner wanted to harvest. Though there is no longer talk of wild grapes, the vineyard faced another problem. The owner of the vineyard had “leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” The vineyard, it seems, still represents Israel, which is now bearing good fruit, as Isaiah prophesied, although Jesus also speaks of it more broadly as “the kingdom of God.” The owner of the vineyard is still God, the lover of Isaiah’s parable, but new figures have emerged: tenants and slaves.
The tenants, according to Mt 21:45, are the chief priests and Pharisees, who are mismanaging the harvest, which is described not as bad fruit but as a good harvest that is not delivered to the owner. The slaves who are sent to collect the harvest most likely represent prophets like Isaiah, whose love songs were not heeded by the tenants. After sending a number of other slaves, who are killed by the tenants, the landowner sent “his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” Instead, the tenants decide to kill him and get his inheritance. Jesus then asked, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and Pharisees answered, not knowing they were condemning themselves, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus agreed, saying “therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Since the tenants do not stand for the whole people, Israel remains the beloved vineyard of Isaiah’s parable, but the care of the vineyard has been “taken away from” the tenants “and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
These are the followers of Jesus, a people made up of Jews and Gentiles, but their tenancy is dependent upon how well they nurture the vineyard. The accent in this parable is not on the abandonment of the vineyard, but on the care of the good fruits now growing there. Implicit in Jesus’ parable is that the vineyard is bearing worthy fruit! Jesus is not singing a song of triumph, trumpeting the superiority of his disciples, but singing Isaiah’s love song to a broader audience. The vineyard has been expanded, and all are welcome to bring in the harvest, but something other than “wild grapes” are needed to produce “the fruits of the kingdom.”