A Reflection on the Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our reading from chapter 5 of Isaiah and our gospel from chapter 21 of Matthew is almost identical, using the image of a vineyard as the house of Israel. In both cases, the connection between the vineyard and the house of Israel is clear, as does our Responsorial Psalm, so no commentary is necessary on that point. However, there are some interesting points that could be highlighted.
Chapter 5 of Isaiah is entitled “The Vineyard Song,” and the friend/owner of the vineyard is obviously. God and the vineyard itself is the House of Israel. Part of the author’s intention in this chapter would have been to cause the Israelites to think back on their history and to remember that God delivered their ancestors from the bondage of Egypt, led them through the desert for many years, and settled them in the Promised Land. They were the “Chosen People of God.” But God first had to spade the land and clear it of stones, and that spading and clearing of stones, in this case, is a reference to the Canaanites who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the Israelites and had to be driven out to make room for the Israelites. Then God built a watchtower and wine press, which refers to the temple and the priestly class, which were to teach the people the Law of Moses passed down to them through the priests. And the “choicest vines” are the “Chosen People” who were the heirs to the vineyard.
Then, the author makes his real purpose known. Since the priests and elders of Israel did not teach the people to abide by God’s law and, consequently, Israel did not produce choice grapes but rather the wild grapes of sin and idolatry, God will tear down the walls and hedge of the House of Israel, leaving it exposed to invasion. As chapter 5 is early in the Book of Isaiah, we would assume this destruction of the nation was probably pointing to the threatened Assyrian invasion of the northern part of Israel in 722 B.C. Still, we could also be looking further ahead to the Babylonian invasion of 587 B.C., which destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple and left the entire nation in ruins, essentially “overgrown with thorns and briers.”
In our gospel passage, which is entitled “The Parable of the Tenants,” we again have a landowner and a vineyard with a tower, a hedge, and a winepress. Remembering that this is a parable, we then see that the vineyard was leased to “tenants,” who were the priests and elders of Israel. Again, the tenants did not produce the good works demanded by the landowner, so he sent his “servants,” the prophets, to encourage the tenants to produce a fruitful harvest. But the tenants continuously killed and persecuted the prophets and would not listen to them. Then, the parable takes a historic twist when the landowner (God) sent his Son, thinking that between the miraculous works of the Son and the Word of God spoken by Him, the tenants would respect the Son and His works and would produce good works in the people. Notice how the tenants: “seized him and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him;” a reference to the fact that Jesus was crucified outside of the city of Jerusalem. There is also a play on Israelite law in this passage, as Jewish law held that if a landowner died without an heir, the tenants would have legal claim to the land.
In our gospel passage, Jesus addresses the “chief priests and elders of the people” (Mt 21:23) and asks them what should be done to the tenants in the parable. They answered that the tenants should be put to death and the vineyard leased to others who would give the owner the produce at the proper time. Thus, they condemned themselves and were told that the kingdom would be taken from them “and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” Those “that will produce its fruit” will be Israelites who follow God’s law and the Gentiles who join them, resulting in the formation of the church.
Matthew also quotes a verse from Psalm 118, which was used by the early church as a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection, declaring God’s vindication in the resurrected Jesus as the stone rejected by the elders that became the cornerstone of the church: the sacrament of salvation.
The “golden thread” that binds Isaiah and Matthew together for us this week is the infidelity of the rulers, Pharisees and Sadducees of ancient Israel. And if we are aware of the history of ancient Israel, then we are aware that God punished the nation for that infidelity. That should also be a warning for us today. The sinfulness of our nation seems to be more and more apparent each day, and our indifference to that sin enables it to grow. We should be like the prophets of old and the church today and speak out loudly against that sin, but who would listen? Our greatest recourse is prayer. As St. Paul tells us in our 2nd reading from Philippians, “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your request known to God.” Help us, Oh Lord, to show the world, by the manner in which we live our lives, that there is a better way.
Reference: Graphic copyright LPI
Author: Ric Cross