This is the third week in a row when the Church presents to us readings about vineyards, and next Sunday we will again hear from Isaiah as he speaks of the “pure, choice wines” which will be served at the end-time heavenly banquet. One could get the wrong idea from all of this and think that our Lord wants all of his disciples to be wine connoisseurs!
Speaking seriously, Catholics have always taken a balanced and prudent view of the consumption of wine and other such beverages, with St. Paul on the one hand advising his protégé Timothy “Stop drinking only water, but have a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23), and on the other hand the wise author of Proverbs cautioning his readers “Do not look on wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup. It goes down smoothly, but in the end it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder” (Proverbs 23:31-32).
What the use of wine-related images in these readings really reminds us of is the fact that in the time and culture of Jesus vineyards and the wine which they produced were of the greatest importance. Not only was wine popular on its own merits, but it would keep over time in contrast to other beverages which quickly spoiled, and so it was a sensible practice to produce and consume wine, and it even became a symbol of prosperity and health.
Jesus thus uses the image of a vineyard quite simply because it was so familiar and readily understood, and thus it would not “get in the way” of the point of his parable. At this stage in the Gospel of Matthew Christ’s parables take on a sharp tone, since he is approaching his arrest and passion, and his enemies are taking every opportunity to try and trap him in his words.
In response Jesus begins speaking out ever more openly, using unmistakable references to his opponents—such as the language we hear in today’s parable of the vineyard. The troublesome thing about this parable is that we have to include ourselves among those who eventually turn against the landowner and the servants whom he sends to receive his tithe of the grapes.
While in our hearts we would often like to isolate those whom we personally dislike in the category occupied by the wicked and disloyal tenant farmers, the reality is that every one of us in some measure shares membership in that group—every one of us bears a responsibility in one degree or another for hindering by means of our self-centeredness and sin the coming of the Kingdom of God (see Matt 21:31, 43), which is the foundational subject of Jesus’ parables both last Sunday and today.
The Kingdom is the essential content of the Lord’s preaching throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, (in John’s Gospel Jesus expresses his teaching in a different but complementary way). At its core, the Kingdom of God is not an earthly realm but a way of living which is entirely animated by a freely chosen embrace of the person of Jesus Christ and the selfless manner of life which he taught and exemplified.
Would that in the course of our life and labors, whether in a vineyard or in a factory, office, school, or home, we might give witness to our faith in the God who has so greatly blessed us, entrusting his “vineyard” to our care, and who asks in return only that we place our trust in him, and our justice and kindness in our neighbor. If we do this, then one day, together with the Lord, we will joyfully drink “the fruit of the vine anew in the kingdom of our Father” (cf. Matt 26:29).
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.