Is 5:1-7 • Phil 4:6-9 • Mt 21:33-43
A mother who had broken a hip had to spend some time in a rehabilitation center following surgery. While she was in rehab, her children thought it would be an opportunity to go through her home, look for tripping and falling hazards and other safety problems, and get them all repaired. They threw out some area rugs (which are one of the leading causes of falls in the home) and some furniture they regarded as too old or too unstable to be safe.
When she returned home the mother was stunned to see that things were missing. The children explained why they had done what they had done. The mother wailed, “Those rugs belonged to my great-great grandmother, and the furniture was made by my great-great-great grandfather! I know you are worried about me, but you threw out what mattered!”
This is today’s story from Isaiah. The people had thrown out what mattered. Isaiah wrote before the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon and the exile of all able-bodied men and women that followed. What Isaiah had seen was a lack of faith and faithfulness that would be the cause of what was to happen to Israel.
Parents invest everything in the rearing of their children. They spend time, effort, emotion and hard-earned money to provide not only sustenance for their children but an education and faith as well. Parents work hard at teaching values and life-lessons. They do everything within their power to provide opportunities for safe, happy and fulfilling lives for their children and to give them possibilities for successful futures. Unfortunately, some parents’ hearts are torn apart by ungrateful children, children who choose wrong roads for themselves. We can only imagine, then, how God’s heart is affected by His children who are ungrateful and who reject everything that has been prepared and laid before them.
Isaiah describes the years-long process of building a vineyard. The outlay of capital for “choicest vines,” building a watchtower and having stonemasons build a wine press would have cost the vineyard owner every penny he had. The hedge would have taken years to grow to make it thick. Furthermore, grapevines have to be grown and nurtured over several seasons before they are able to produce grapes of the quality necessary to make wine.
The investment was enormous, but the preparations were perfect. In the hands of Isaiah, we discover that the vineyard owner’s investment paid no dividends. This is a parable about our stewardship of God’s gifts to us. God expects to see a return on His investment, but the return He looks for is a people with a heart for justice. God’s hope in the parable was that everything He planted would produce a people who honestly cared for widows and orphans. His plan for us is that we will become a people who will return His investment with affection and devotion.
In the words of Isaiah, God “looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!” God looked “for justice, but hark, the outcry!” Judgment consists of right choices based on faith. Justice means to align everything with God’s plan of love. This is a story from the past, but history repeats itself and human nature remains the same, so what does God see when He looks at His vineyard today? What have we produced? What return have we made on His investment in us?
The consequence Isaiah pronounced in the name of God mentions the word “trample” and the sentence “I will make it a ruin.” These were military terms used to describe what armies did to the lands they conquer. Utter destruction followed conquest. An invading army sought to make sure that a people could not regroup and eventually rise up.
It is important to notice that, unlike Isaiah, Matthew does not speak of destroying the vineyard. Instead, Matthew tells of giving the vineyard to new tenants. He speaks not of destroying but of starting over, telling us of an owner, God, who has a history of trying over and over to renew His relationship with us after each one of our failures. This is a God who will not give up on His investment in us.
Although, in Matthew’s story, God does not destroy the vineyard as He did in Isaiah’s story. But God does put the current tenants to death. What was their crime? The tenants did not practice justice. Worst of all, they threw out what really mattered: God’s gifts.
The vineyard is not ours; it is God’s. It is ours to enjoy, but God expects a return on His investment in us, His love for us. He expects to harvest our love in return.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.