Reflection on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Throughout both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures grapes, wine, vineyards, vines and branches, owners, tenants and laborers are some of the most common allegories for the relationships between God and God’s people. I Googled “vineyards in the Bible.” One source listed 82 different scriptural references — 27 from the New Testament and 10 from the Gospel of Matthew. So you are right if you’ve been thinking that we’ve heard a lot about vineyards and grapes these past weeks as we have read our way through Matthew’s Gospel.
The earliest scriptural reference I found to vineyards was from Genesis. It simply says that after the great flood Noah planted a vineyard. The story of Noah is an early covenant story. It ends with Noah and his family and their collection of animals leaving the ark God had directed Noah to build. Because of Noah’s obedient fidelity he and his family and the animals survive the flood and God promises that never again would a flood be sent to destroy the entire earth and its people. The picture book I had as a child showed God’s promise being sealed with a rainbow. Noah, for his part, simply planted a vineyard — and it is vineyards, not rainbows, that become a dominant symbol of the covenant evolving between God and God’s people and eventually encompassing Jesus and his mission.
As time goes on the vineyard is increasingly used allegorically to mean Israel, the Chosen people, the people bound to God in covenant. God is often portrayed as the vineyard owner or the vine grower. The vineyard belongs to God. The fruits of the vineyard belong to God and the expectation is that the people will faithfully work the vineyard and the fruitful vines will produce good wine in overflowing abundance. The vineyard expresses God’s dream, God’s hope for all of creation. In return God will protect Israel and shower the people with prosperity.
The vineyard allegories scattered through the Old Testament also express the prophetic sense of God’s frustration, anger, wrath with the vineyard gone array. At times the land is incapable of producing or the grapes go wild and are not succulent. The drought comes. The weather does not cooperate. Often the vine dressers, those charged with the care of the vineyard, are lax, negligent or greedy and fail to live within the covenant. Vineyards also became corrupted in an economic system where often times the rich became richer because they held the land and the poor suffered even more.
Jesus was certainly aware of the inequity of power and the misery inflicted on the poor in his society. He must have been aware of the allegories as he uses them to describe himself, his mission and the kingdom of God. He would have been familiar with the passage from Isaiah, “Let me sing of my friend and his vineyard” and the Psalm response, “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel” and of the plea, “Protect what you have planted.”
The parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Matthew is addressed specifically to the chief priests and the elders. Jesus says to them, “Listen to another parable.” The landowner he describes is a wealthy man who has many servants and tenants. Neither he nor his son are needed to work in the vineyard. He plants a vineyard — more accurately he has his servants plant the vineyard and build the wine press. He sets tenants over the vineyard to tend the vines and the grapes. They do the work. He stands to profit. And finally, at harvest, after repeatedly sending his servants to bring him the new season’s wine and having them beaten or killed by the tenants, the vineyard owner sends his son thinking that the those working the vineyard would surely respect his son and give over the new wine to the landowner. Instead they murder the son. Perhaps they are tired of inadequate wages and their landless status as tenants and want to claim the vineyard and power as their own. The inheritance laws provided that if the landowner died without an heir, a son, the land would pass to the tenants.
The question Jesus poses to the elders and chief priests — the very people with whom he is in increasing conflict — the very people who will plot to kill him, is what will the landowner do to those tenants? Their answer is telling. The landowner, they say will come swooping in and kill the wretched tenants.
They never see themselves in the parable. They don’t remember that God sent the prophets, and like the servants in the parable, they were rejected —beaten or murdered. They judge the tenants to be simply greedy and unfaithful and don’t question how like greedy and unfaithful tenants they themselves are. The system does not shroud them in injustice, but in privilege. They see themselves as either pious observers or like landowners with a righteous claim to the vineyard’s crop. They are skilled at judging others. They expect the landowner in the parable to act as they themselves would act. And they go on to judge and condemn Jesus, not recognizing him the son sent by the landowner.
And so Jesus does not respond directly to their question, but responds instead to their lack of insight and their judgment of others. He suggests that perhaps they do not know the Scripture, from Psalms, which likely they did know, which says that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Jesus refers to himself, and they don’t recognize that. He is the son of the landowner, the son they will seize and kill, but he will become the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. But he is also referring to the tenants, those unjustly poor in a multitude of ways. Those rejected will become the cornerstones of the kingdom. And the chief priests and elders will not inherit the kingdom.
All that left me thinking about rejection and cornerstones, about harvests and systems that raise up one group of people at the expense of others. About the many ways we, as a society, perpetuate unjust systems and allow some to profit from them, to wield unjust power based on lies and deceit and grow wealthy on the backs of others.
In these days, I’ve thought about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. After a stinging rejection from Harvard, she graduated first in her Columbia Law School class, but wasn’t offered a single job because she was a woman, a Jew and a mother. She became the cornerstone of the legal battle for women’s rights in this country and around the world. I’ve thought of George Floyd, rejected to death by a racist policing system and becoming the cornerstone a world-wide movement of justice and equality. I’ve thought of Breonna Taylor, who died amid lies and coverups and is slowly becoming a cornerstone of truth. I’ve marveled at the shift in news coverage now highlighting the lives of Black American men and woman whose lives were dedicated, against odds, to care for the community, living compassion, and making a difference. I’ve thought about sports teams using their power for peace and cooperation for justice, for voter registration before victory. And I’ve thought about faithful servants — truly simple people like Delores Kelledy, who went about doing the hard work of teaching poor children, children society rejected because of their skin color, children in the hardest schools of St Louis. And believing that the work was a gift, a privilege. And she became an unsung cornerstone of Loretto mission.
And then I go back to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. If he were writing to Loretto today I think he would be telling us to think about what is true, what is right and good, what is beautiful, what is for the good of all. To hang on to that; to keep on keeping on; to become with Jesus cornerstones of the kingdom.