A Love Song About God’s Vineyard
Isaiah and Jesus share their versions of God’s love song to a vineyard. Sunday’s readings highlight a parable in allegoric fashion dedicated to a special vineyard. But there is a slight difference in how the first reading and the Gospel describe this allegory. The themes of “care for the vineyard” and “neglect of it” remain the same throughout all the readings. Restoration, however, is the enduring hope.
“O Lord, God of hosts, restore us.” (Ps 80:20)
How has your care for the church cultivated good fruit?
Is there an area of neglect for the people of God that requires your attention?
What is one thing that needs restoration in your community today?
Isaiah sends a clear message to the “inhabitants of Jerusalem” that they are to judge between God and his beloved vineyard. Nothing more could be done for this fertile vineyard. “He spaded it, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines; built a watchtower and hewed out a wine press” (Is 5:2). Instead of cultivated grapes, the vineyard produced rotten grapes. Israel—that is, the collective identity of the whole people—has somehow failed. The text reads, “He expected justice, but look, injustice! for charity, but listen, an outcry!” (Is 5:7). Isaiah writes with crafted skill. Just listen to the choice of Hebrew words as they ring hauntingly and succinct: mishpat (justice) / mispah (injustice), followed by tsedaqah (charity) / tse’aqah (an outcry).
All it takes is the slightest manipulation of a single consonant in the Hebrew word to move from “justice” to “injustice.” How easy, too, it is for the people of God to move from concern for our neighbor to neglect of the least in society within the history of salvation. For the grievances listed by Isaiah against God’s vineyard, one may read through verses in Chapters 5 and 10. “Therefore, my people go into exile,” writes Isaiah, “for lack of understanding, its nobles starving, its masses parched with thirst” (Is 5:13). That the Lord “breaks through the vineyard’s walls” explains historical events and the vulnerability of Israel as the Assyrians grazed through and plundered the northern kingdom (see Is 5:5, Ps 80:13).
All it takes is the slightest manipulation of a single consonant in the Hebrew word to move from “justice” to “injustice.”
In today’s Gospel, Matthew includes a parable with the same concern over God’s vineyard that we find in Isaiah. “A landowner,” says Jesus, “planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower” (Mt 21:33). Jesus, however, provides an explanation for where things have gone wrong. “But the tenants,” says Jesus, “seized the servants.” Within this allegory, the vineyard is Israel; the tenants are the chief priests, scribes and leadership who destroy the servants, who are the prophets God sent to them. The leadership of the people receive the weight of the warning to shape up.
Regardless of where the blame is placed—the collective vineyard as in Isaiah, or the tenants as in Matthew—a pattern of “care for” followed by “neglect of” the vineyard remains the same. What the readings offer us is an opportunity to pray about the role of restoration needed for the present moment. How will the church care for its vineyard and produce unspoiled fruit?
The events of the Synod on Synodality taking place in Rome are a good place to start. Gerard O’Connell, America’s Vatican correspondent, describes the synod as “the most transformative event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council” (see America’s coverage on the web). May this be a place where the leadership and the collective vineyard can respond to the outcries of any injustice. May this be a time for the restoration of God’s vineyard. Finally, one can only hope that the words from today’s responsorial psalm may become the synod’s own prayer: “O Lord, God of hosts, restore us” (Ps 80:20).