Words on the Word

27. Sunday

Isaiah 5.1-7: The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel.
Philippians 4.6-9: Fill your minds with what is true, noble, good, and pure.
Matthew 21.33-43: A people who will produce its fruit.

In Genesis we read about the flood. After 150 days the waters receded. When the dove no longer returned to him, Noah saw that the trial was over. The word came: ‘Come out of the Ark!’ Noah celebrated a new covenant with the Lord, sealed with the rainbow. Then he set about cultivating the earth, and ‘was the first to plant a vineyard’ (9.20).

I beg your pardon?

The earth was void, having neither fields nor houses. Everything had to be ordered afresh. Faced with such necessity, Noah planted, not cabbage, but vines. What on earth is that supposed to mean?

That man refuses to accept the world as merely a vale of tears, a wilderness of thistles and thorns to be conquered in the sweat of his brow; that within us there’s remembrance of a more harmonious earth, created for delight. Precisely the superfluity of wine makes it into a powerful symbol. Wine represents togetherness, joy, prosperity. We read in the Bible of the ‘wine that gladdens the heart’. The dream of being seated ‘under one’s vine and fig tree’ stands for the fulfilment of divine promises. When the Psalmist expresses his ecstatic joy in the Lord, he says it exceeds even the joy of wine abounding.

This is the backdrop to Isaiah’s parable about the vineyard. Isaiah explains the symbol. The Lord is the the farmer, Israel is the vine. But why should the vineyard be an apt image for God’s people? As we’ve seen, man can get by without wine. Abstinence does not cause disease. Similarly the peoples of the earth lived and thrived before the arrival of Israel, they weren’t especially conscious that something was lacking. It wasn’t out of necessity that the Lord planted his vineyard. He planted it out of goodness. He planted it to give us joy, that humanity might advance in its capacity for life – from a minimalistic finality of survival to a creative superabundance of fruitfulness.

Through Israel the peoples of the earth were to taste the paradisal wine for which Noah thirsted. They were to see that life isn’t just a question of sustenance, procreation, and the survival of the fittest; that we truly become ourselves when we found our society on justice, when the widow is comforted, orphans nurtured, when a poor fellow has his pledged cloak returned to him before night falls, when a stranger is welcomed as a brother. A society founded on such terms acquires a peculiar vitality, a sweetness that in the long terms transforms those touched by it. It fosters togetherness, prosperity, shared joy, just like wine.

Grapes did come, but of the wrong sort. God expected good grapes. What he got were ‘wild’ ones, a handful of bitter, unpleasant useless little berries. Isaiah speaks clearly: ‘He expected justice, but found bloodshed, integrity, but only a cry of distress.’ We were given the opportunity to transcend ourselves, to live a life based on ideals, not just on instinct. Yet we preferred the instinctual life. Greed suppressed the call to justice, the noble grape nurtured by God, whose holiness appears in his justice. It is a blessing to be planted in the vineyard of the Lord. But positioning alone does not guarantee a good harvest. To bear good fruit, the vine must absorb the soil’s nutrients. If instead it simply lives on its own sap, resisting cultivation, nothing will distinguish it from a wild plant. The vineyard might as well be surrendered to the elements. The product hoped for, a delicious wine to gladden the hearts, remains but a dream.

in the Gospel, Jesus rhapsodises on the motif of the vineyard, presupposing both Genesis and Isaiah. He gives the story a new twist. The conflict is no longer between the gardener and the vineyard. It is between the landowner and his servants. Grapes are not even mentioned. It is as if the servants had forgotten what their work was about. What matters to them are rights of property. They want to be able to extend their hand over the land and say, ‘This is mine!’ No means is too violent to serve this purpose. They scourge and put to death those who come in their way. Meanwhile the vineyard decays. It remains unproductive, so must be entrusted to others, ‘who will produce its fruit’.

The parable speaks about ‘a people’. It is about us, you and me. The reference is timeless.

The good grape is a delicate creature. If it is to thrive, it must be fussed over. We are facing the prospect of long-term agriculture. The thought of immediate gain is illusory, and may prove destructive. So we might ask ourselves: Do we let God continue his work of creation in us? Do we let his ideals form our instincts? Do we wish to be incorporated into a logic of superabundance and generosity?

Remember where the Lord was when he told this parable. He was already in Jerusalem, overshadowed by Calvary. And what did he do before he, up there on the hill, surrendered his own life’s fruit to the winepress? ‘In the night in which he was betrayed, he took the chalice, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this and drink from it! This is my blood for the forgiveness of sins.’

In our time, as at any time, there are those who scoff at this sign. We meanwhile see in it the key to our existence. May our lives bear fruit worthy of this chalice. May they be changed by the wine we receive, that we become fit to bear good fruit.

St Paul tells us to fill our minds with all that is true, noble, good and pure, all that is lovable and honourable, all that is virtuous or worthy of praise. If we take his words to heart, our lives will be perfumed with a fragrance of eternity. Then even the quotidian details of daily duties will be transformed into a paradisal wine, a sparkling hymn of praise to the Lord’s praise, for the consolation and joy of our brothers and sisters. Amen.