Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014
We live in wine country and there are a great number of vineyards very near to us. Similarly in Jesus’ time and in Isaiah’s time, one of the common sights would be a vineyard. I don’t imagine that drinking wine is any less popular today than it was centuries ago, So both Jesus and Isaiah and David use the image of the vineyard as a way to let the chosen Jewish people know and understand just what has happened to them and will happen to them. Because they were very familiar with the workings of a vineyard, the story made much more sense to them and they could understand the warning inherent in each story.
The section of Psalm 80 today has a refrain which certainly simplifies things if anyone hadn’t gotten this message: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel”. What David is doing in the Psalm, unlike the other readings today, is simply letting the Hebrews meditate on how well they have been prepared, planted, and nurtured. It is a prayer for this nurturing to continue so they they might produce fruit, since they have come on to difficult times. The wall of this vineyard has broken down and animals eat the fruit as well as passersby. It is a plea to God to continue his good work with Israel.
On the other hand, Isaiah, being a prophet, has often had a harsh message to bring from God to the Hebrews. Prophets were either consoling or full of warning, and in this message Isaiah starts off letting the Hebrews know the wonderful things God has done for them and what the result of that has been. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard did everything he could possibly do to ensure that his vineyard was fruitful and that the grapes that were produced were of finest quality. He made sure that the soil was overturned and all the debris of rocks were removed from it. He planted only the best seedling vines, and in the center of this garden he built a watchtower. Now a watchtower was traditionally used in war, and was built so that one could see an approaching enemy. Here, the owner of the vineyard wanted to make sure that his vineyard was protected and secure and that no one would break into it and damage the vines or steal the grapes. yet, despite all this preparation of soil, careful planting and watching over the garden, the only thing that was produced was wild, sour grapes.
So Isaiah asks “what more could the owner of the vineyard do? He did everything possible to see to it that the grapes were the best from which to make the wine. In his frustration with the wild grapes, he decided that he would either have to start over again, abandon the land, or lay it to waste. He decides to do the latter. He will tear down the protecting hedges, leave it to be overcome with weeds, trample it down and not allow it to be be watered so that it becomes a wasteland.
This should have been very frightening to the Hebrews, and indeed it was exactly what happened to them, because they had become the sour grapes, God stopped protecting them, abandoning them to enemies and weather, and soon the Hebrews were conquered and became captives.
But God always keeps his promises, and though we don’t read it here, we do find out that God remains faithful to the Hebrew people and eventually they are released from their bondage and start again. God keeps his covenant even though the people did not!
Jesus, too, is acting the prophet today. Unlike many of the parables that begin “The kingdom of heaven is like…”, this one does not. Instead Jesus tells a story about a landowner much like the one in Isaiah who planted a vineyard, fenced it in to protect it, also built a watch tower and a wine press, but who did not tend it himself, but left the country and leased the land to tenant farmers. In this parable, the grape harvest is not Israel, but the tenant farmers are Israel. We don’t know why the tenant farmers decided not to give the rightful owner the fruits of the harvest, except maybe the harvest was so special that they wanted it all for themselves. In any case, they treated the owner’s slaves very badly, even killing one of them. In desperation the owner sent his own son to collect the produce thinking that they would respect a free man, and rightful heir to the property. But no, the tenants decided they not only wanted the produce but they wanted the property as well, and killed the landlord’s only son so there would be no one the landlord could leave the land to.
Then Jesus asks the question: what is the landlord going to do about all of this? He lets the chief priests and elders come up with the end of the story themselves, for there is only one probable ending – the landowner will come himself and put the tenants to death, and lease the land to more suitable tenants who will give him the produce he deserves at harvest time. Jesus lets the chief priests and elders mull over the story and then draws the conclusion that he wants them to get. Israel is like the landowners who kill the messengers of the landlord, God. God therefore will punish the Israelite leaders and he will give leadership to someone else, who will do what the Father wills and harvest good fruit. There is also a veiled prophecy about Christ’s own death here – the only Son who is killed by the chief priests and elders.
Although the warnings today were specifically for Israel, we can adapt and apply them to ourselves as well.We must never forget who is the landowner and try to take that inheritance for ourselves through pride. Oftentimes we have control issues and think that we are – or at least should be – in control of our lives. It is only when adversity hits that we truly realize we have no control and we turn to God to get help. That is basically one good definition of prayer, isn’t it? And that is what Paul talks about today in the Epistle. Let God know what you want. Pray to him, thank him, and stop worrying, Paul says. Once we know and recognize who the landowner of the vineyard is, we place ourselves in God’s hands, letting him know what we want, but only expecting that he will do the very best for us and knows what is the very best for us. It is hard to give up that kind of control of our lives – the tenants of the vineyard sure couldn’t do it! But we must offer the fruits of our lives to God and trust that all will work out well in the end. Hard to do, but well worth the effort.
And that is the Good News of the vineyard and of prayer that we are told about by God today.
Bishop Ron Stephens
Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA
The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)
[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 - “Teaching the Church Year”]