Opening the Word: Church as vineyard

In the Old Testament, Israel is a rich vineyard, a place where the choicest wines are produced: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out nations and planted it. ... It sent out its boughs as far as the sea, its shoots as far as the river” (Ps 80:9, 12).

The Lord has carefully tended this vineyard, caring for it, but “what it yielded was wild grapes” (Is 5:2).

The wild grapes of injustice. The wild grapes of idolatry. The wild grapes of sin.

In Isaiah, we hear of the divine judgment that will be enacted upon the vineyard of Israel. The vineyard “shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it” (Is 5:6).

The rich soil of the vineyard will be abandoned, left to be covered with weeds and thorns.

Our Lord Jesus Christ takes up this image in a parable he tells to the chief priests and elders of Israel.

A landowner prepares a vineyard to grow the richest produce. But unlike the landowner in Isaiah, he rents it out to a group of tenants. At harvest time, he sends his servants to collect the produce that has grown but “the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned” (Mt 21:35). The landowner sends another crop of servants, but they, too, are killed. Finally, the landowner sends his son. But the tenants respond even more violently: “They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (Mt 21:39).

By now, the reader of the parable should recognize that we’re not simply talking about a vineyard. We are coming face-to-face with the violence that Jesus Christ himself will encounter in his crucifixion.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the last of the prophets, entering into the vineyard of Israel. But all reject him. But from these “wild grapes,” a rich harvest is to be produced: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes” (Ps 118:22; Mt 21:42).

Indeed, the vineyard will be taken away from Israel alone. It will be given to the nations. It will become the space where the wedding banquet of the Lamb will be celebrated.

We should recognize in our reading of this parable, as Christians, a warning to us. The vineyard of the Lord, the Church, can just as easily produce wild grapes through our own sinfulness.

We can produce the wild grapes of idolatry when we choose to adore the power politics of the day rather than the self-giving love of the Son. We can yield a harvest of hatred when we respond online with enmity against our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can generate crops of confusion by seeking to preach a comfortable falsehood rather than Christ crucified.

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The Church, like Israel, is the vineyard of the Lord when the fruits of faith, hope and love are made available to the nations. As workers in this vineyard, we cultivate these works through the sacraments, through a life of prayer, through radical love of the neighbor.

Just like Israel, the Lord will never abandon the Church. All will be invited to partake in the fruits of this field. But Our Lord reminds us that the violence, the enmity, the hatred in the human heart can grow as pervasive as the weeds that choke the vine.

And if we’re not careful, we’ll discover ourselves in the desert of desolation rather than the vineyard of divine love.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.