By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
It may come as a surprise that the Old Testament also uses parables for correcting situations. Today’s first reading is a parable from Isaiah of Jerusalem. The outer limits of his ministry, 742-687, covers the reigns or parts of at least three, perhaps four Kings of Judah. The parable is directed toward a sick society in religious matters and social injustice. What are some of the ills besetting the Kingdom of Judah? Idolatry is condemned from the beginning of Isaiah’s oracles. This apostasy was at least to some extent due to the kingdom’s foreign policy that, against Isaiah’s instructions, bowed to the influence of the superpower of the day Assyria. Worship of the Lord God had deteriorated to external forms. Social injustice was rampant. Judges took bribes and consequently there was “no justice to the orphan and the cause of the widow is never heard.” The rulers were the accomplices of thieves and “all were greedy for profit.” The prophet reprimands the rulers, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, and conceal what you have stone from the poor.” Therefore, the parable of the vineyard sung (rapped) by Isaiah:
“My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.” He cleared the ground and planted choice grape-vines. He built a watchtower to guard against thieves. He hewed from the rock a wine press of different levels. All was finished. When he came to look for grapes, he found wild grapes” (more accurately, stinking grapes). Isaiah reveals the object of the parable — Jerusalem and the people of the Kingdom of Judah. Because of his disappointment, the Lord will remove the protective hedge of the vineyard, turn it into a place for animals to graze, break holes into its wall, and let it be trampled. It will become a total ruin overgrown with thorns and briers. The Lord will forbid the clouds to rain upon it. Again the prophet identifies the vineyard as “the house of Israel and the people of Judah.” He looked for judgment and justice but found bloodshed and outcry.” May the Church and our nation never deserve such a description. The parable of Isaiah was selected for the first reading to correspond to the parable of a vineyard in today’s gospel.
The Responsorial Psalm 80 is also about a vineyard. The people’s response identifies the vineyard in a quote from Isaiah, “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” In a reference to the Exodus, the Psalmist sings to God, “A vine from Egypt you have transplanted.” Entrance into the Land of Promise: “You drove away the nations and planted it.” Geographical boundaries during the time of King David: “It put forth its foliage to the Sea, (the Mediterranean), its shoots as far as the River (Euphrates).” Either the Psalmist was influenced by Isaiah’s vineyard parable or Isaiah by the Psalm. The Psalmist sings of a broken down wall. Anyone passing by can pluck its fruit. Wild animals lay it waste and cattle graze in it. Isaiah added sorrows called “woes” to his vineyard. Not so the Psalmist. He added prayers. “Take care of this vine your right hand has planted.” A prayer for the king, “Protect the son of man whom you yourself made strong.” A promise: if the Lord restores his vine: “We will no more withdraw from you.”
In the second reading Paul has reached the exhortation part of his Letter to the Philippians. After reminding them that he is in prison, (surely an appeal to their emotions), he begs them to lead a life worthy of their Christian calling. They should not be anxious, but make their requests known to God. Thus they would enjoy the peace that surpasses all understanding. He lists the qualities of Christian life: true, honorable, just, pure, loving, gracious, worthy of praise. In closing he reminds them to “keep on doing what you have learned and received, heard and seen in me.”
In Matthew’s arrangement of the material for his gospel, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and his invasion of the temple set up a series of confrontations that would lead to Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution. In a chain of parables, Jesus verbally attacks the chief priests and elders. That would be the official governing body in religious matters. It was known as the Sanhedrin. There were 70 members. The current high priest presided. Not to be forgotten is the fact that Matthew writes on two levels — the time of Jesus in the 30s of the first Christian century, and the time of Matthew in the 80s. This was a time of bitter separation between Jewish and Christian synagogues. Last Sunday’s parable attacked the religious leadership’s treatment of John the Baptizer. Today’s parable is the battle over the identity of Jesus and the opening to the Gentiles. As in today’s first reading from Isaiah and in the Response Psalm, the setting is a vineyard. A landowner plants a vineyard, encircles it with a hedge, hews a wine press out of surrounding rock, builds a watch-tower to protect it. He leases the vineyard to tenants and goes on a long journey.
Harvest time! The owner sends two teams, one after another, to collect his share of the produce. The tenants beat some, kill another, stone another. The second team is treated the same way. If this were a real life situation we would have to say that the landowner was not remarkably bright. Since he had no success with the two teams of employees, he decides to send his own son. The tenants kill the son and throw his body outside the vineyard. Jesus asks his opponents, “What will the owner do to the tenants?” Their answer: “He will destroy those wretches, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him a return for his investment.” This is a classical form of parable — to bring the story to the point that the opponents have to see themselves, the religious leadership, in “those wretches.” It’s Matthew’s “gotcha.” The servants represent Old Testament prophets and Christian missionaries of the New Testament, both sets usually opposed by religious leadership. The son is Jesus, killed by the wicked tenants, killed outside the vineyard. Matthew sees an opportunity to justify the mission to the Gentiles. They are the new tenants who will give the owner his share of the produce. Matthew tacks on a brief parable about a cornerstone, (Jesus), rejected by the builders yet becoming the cornerstone of the building.