As produce flows in from backyard gardens, bundles of zucchini are surreptitiously left on neighbors porches, and harvest time approaches for our local farmers, it is appropriate that the scripture readings at mass speak of reaping the good fruits of the land. In particular, the prophecy from Isaiah, the responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel all use the image of a promising vineyard to express their meaning.
In a sense, going beyond the agricultural imagery, the theme of these readings is that of choosing. In Isaiah’s famous “song of the vineyard” the prophet describes how the Lord, having chosen his land, carefully cleared it, tilled it, and planted it with only the finest vines, yet it yielded nothing but bitter wild grapes. The prophet then makes it clear that the vineyard represents the Lord’s chosen people Israel, and that the he will punish this vineyard by uprooting it: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!” (Isa 5:7).
The theme of choosing continues in the responsorial Psalm, where the inspired writer recalls the exodus of the chosen Israelites from Egypt and their entry into the promised land: “A vine from Egypt you transplanted; you drove away the nations and planted it” (Ps 80:9). There too the rebellion of Israel is noted, as well as a plea for restoration: “Give us new life, and we will call upon your name. O Lord, God of hosts, restore us” (Ps 80:19-20).
When it comes to the Gospel parable of the vineyard the chief priests and the elders could hardly have doubted that Jesus was referring Isaiah’s words to them, for his words follow closely upon the “song of the vineyard,” which they would likely have known by heart. Again we hear how a landowner selected a plot, carefully prepared and planted it, and then leased it out to tenants whom he expected to look after his vineyard and help it bear a good harvest. Being badly scorned by them and seeing his servants beaten and killed he then sends his beloved son, who is likewise killed—an unmistakable reference to Christ himself and to his violent death.
The parable concludes with the warning that the landowner will come back and “put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Here we see an allusion to the general lack of reception that Jesus found from his own people. As the Declaration Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican council states: “As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.”
We rejoice that we Christians are the living fulfillment of the prophecy “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matt 21:42). What we must remember is that, firstly, the same possibility of jeopardy faces us if the vineyard of the Lord does not bear fruit on our watch, and secondly, the original choice of the Lord is never defeated, it simply yields new harvests of growth and blessings even if it takes unexpected turns through history. In this regard Nostra Aetate continues: “Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues…the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’” Now that is a choice and a harvest of salvation for which we can all be glad!
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.