By Carl E. Olson - OSV Newsweekly, 5/6/2012
Vineyards were an integral part of the agricultural life of ancient Israel. They were common throughout the land, and the wine produced from their grapes was a staple of daily living. Vineyards, in the Old Testament, were used as complex metaphors for the land of Israel.
In the famous parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, Israel is described as God’s vineyard: “He spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines” (Is 5:2). Alas, although God watched over the vineyard, it did not produce good grapes, but “yielded … rotten grapes.” And so judgment would eventually follow, and the vineyard will be ruined, “overgrown with thorns and briers.”
Another notable passage is Psalm 80, a prayer for the restoration of God’s vineyard. Israel is described as a vine brought out of Egypt and transplanted in the promised land. But after flourishing, the vineyard was ravaged by foreigners and wild beasts. Other prophets, such as Jeremiah, looked to a time when the vineyard of Israel would be restored, and the fruit of the vine enjoyed by the people (see Jer 31:5; 32:15).
Jesus, however, did not align the image of the vineyard with Israel, but with the kingdom of God. His parable of the tenants (Mt 21:33-46), for example, bears similarities to Isaiah 5, but with a twist, aimed at the Pharisees: “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
Israel had been called and brought into existence to be a light and witness to the nations, the first of a host of peoples who would come to know, love, and worship the true God. But, time and again, Israel failed, pursuing nationalist ambitions or false idols or other evils.
The kingdom was announced and established by Jesus, not based in ethnicity or nationalism, but in himself — King and Savior. “I am the true vine,” he declared, “and my Father is the vine grower.” The vineyard, then, is not just the kingdom, but the new Israel, the Church, which is “the seed and beginning” of the kingdom (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 567).
Foremost in today’s Gospel is the call to life-giving unity, centered on the true vine, Jesus Christ. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
Nothing! It is a fact worthy of contemplation; we are often tempted to think otherwise. But apart from the work and life of Christ, we are dry branches and our fruit is dead or rotten. The very reason the Son become man was so men could become sons of God, able by grace to live holy and sacrificial lives.
“And unless he had become the vine, we could have borne no good fruit,” wrote St. Hilary of Poitiers. “He encourages us to abide in him through faith in his assumed body, that, since the Word has been made flesh, we may be in the nature of his flesh, as the branches are in the vine.”
This same theme of abiding and obedience is evident in today’s epistle, also by St. John: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” When we live in accord with the teachings of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, we share more deeply in the graces of our Savior.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
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