Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7; Response: Psalm 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20; Second Reading: Philippians 4:6-9; Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43

Isaiah of Jerusalem, the greatest and most quoted of the Old Testament prophets, was called to his ministry in 742 B.C. He was active in the Kingdom of Judah. His prophetic pronouncements cannot be dated beyond 701. He may have been active down to 687 B.C. This long timespan touches the reigns of at least three, perhaps four, kings of Judah. What were his concerns? Divine worship, politics and social injustice — all of them pertaining to religion. Worship had deteriorated into external form only. Idolatry is denounced from the beginning. It became widespread in the kingdom after Judah became a satellite of the superpower of the day, the Assyrian Empire. With Assyrian meddling came the worship of Assyrian gods. As to social injustice — judges took bribes, resulting in no justice to exploited orphans and widows. The rulers were accomplices of thieves, and all were greedy for profit. Though so long ago, it all sounds so recent. Isaiah reprimands the rulers: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, and concealed what you have stolen from the poor.”

One of his responses to this dire situation is our first reading — The Song of the Vineyard. It is a parable and was no-doubt chanted, akin to rappers of our time. The opening line: “Let me now sing … my friend’s song concerning his vineyard.” He built his vineyard from scratch on a fertile hillside, plowed the ground, cleared out rocks, planted the best grapevines and put a hedge around it. Out of an adjacent layer of stone he carved out a winepress. It was a perfect launch. Harvest time was at hand. What did his friend find? Nothing but wild, stinking grapes. The prophet supplies an interpretation in allegorical terms. The vineyard is Jerusalem and its inhabitants, from kings to commoners. In disgust his friend will remove the hedge, allowing animals to enter and devour and trample the plants. No more pruning or cultivating. Thorns and briers will take over. No rain will fall on it. At the end, Isaiah identifies his friend as “the Lord of hosts (armies),” and adds a final interpretation. The Lord, who came looking for a harvest, found neither judgment nor justice, but the cry of violence against the poor. Such is the Old Testament background to the parable of Jesus and Matthew in today’s gospel reading.

Psalm 80 is the right choice to respond to Isaiah’s parable. The thoughts of Isaiah and the psalm are often quite similar. The liturgy recognizes this fact by using a quote from Isaiah for the people’s response: “The vineyard of the Lord is the House of Israel.” In the opening line, the psalmist recognizes the Exodus from Egypt: “A vine from Egypt you transplanted.” He recognizes the geographical boundaries of David’s kingdom during 1,000-961 B.C. Those boundaries? The vine the Lord transplanted “put forth its foliage to the Sea (the Mediterranean). Its shoots as far as the River (Euphrates).” Like Isaiah, the psalm speaks of a broken hedge, invasion of wild animals feeding on the vine. It ends with a plea for renewed life: “Look down from heaven and see. Protect this vine, and we will no more withdraw from you.”

The second reading takes us to the exhortation part of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul gives standard advice. He had just reminded them that the Day of the Lord was near (so he thought). Thus, our reading opens with advice to not be anxious, but keep on praying. This would bring them unsurpassed peace. He lists the qualities of a Christian life, and to keep on doing what he taught them by word and example: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”

In last week’s column, it was noted that Jesus’ attack on the temple had set up a confrontation with the chief priests and elders. They constituted important elements of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews in religious matters and some civic affairs, as permitted by the Roman occupying authorities. The chief priests, especially, would be concerned about the temple because the temple was their business. They would become the chief culprits instigating the arrest and execution of Jesus. He had already bested them in two previous confrontations.

Today’s parable of the vineyard is the third confrontation. The parable begins similar to that of Isaiah in the first reading — a vineyard, a hedge, a winepress. This parable adds two new features – a watchtower to guard against thieves and a lease of the vineyard to tenants.  The watchtower may be an implicit reminder of Jesus’ quote while expelling business interests from the temple: “You have made the temple a den of robbers.” Basic to the story in the parable is the fact that, in Jesus’ time, many Romans or rich city folks bought up land and vineyards from poor farmers and made sharecroppers out of the former owners. They were absentee landlords living in big cities, even as far away as Rome.

The parable, as we have it, turns into an allegory as used by Matthew. Jesus’ use of it was similar. The landowner is God. He leased his vineyard to tenants. In Jesus’ mind, the tenants are the chief priests and elders he addresses. For Matthew, they also are the leaders of the Jewish community in about the year 85, who were in competition with Christian missionaries – not only about how much of the Old Testament Law still applied, but especially over converts. The servants sent to collect the owner’s share were first the prophets, some of them treated as described in the parable. For Matthew, they were also Christian missionaries whom the chief priests persecuted, beat up and even instigated their lynching, as we see in the case of Stephen, one of the first deacons. After another failed attempt with servants, the owner sent his Son. He was sure they would respect his Son. No way! They killed him and threw his body out of the vineyard. Jesus asks a question: “What will the owner do to those tenants?” If they answered Jesus as the parable depicts, they indicted themselves: “He will put those wretches to a wretched death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the harvest at proper times.” For Jesus, this was a warning about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and putting the blame where it belonged. Same for Matthew – but also a justification for the Christian mission to the Gentiles.