Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 2 October 2011
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:9, 12-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
Three of today’s readings share the metaphor of God’s people as a vineyard. The prophet sings his audience a song which at first they must think is about his friend’s lover but which ends up being about the people of God. The loved one, carefully protected and provided for, has been unfaithful (produced ‘wild’ grapes) and so will be abandoned and exposed. I flinch at the starkness of these images within their patriarchal setting, where the suspected woman can be cast off so harshly, but the message is clear. In Isaiah’s day the people were facing the threat of the powerful Assyrian empire. The prophet interprets that for them as the impending punishment for their unfaithfulness to God. The sin he highlights is injustice and its accompanying violence. And injustice is always violence against those discriminated against, whether or not it is physical. The prophet goes on in the verses following this reading to condemn the acquisition of wealth by the few.
Psalm 80 draws upon the same imagery, but this time from the perspective of God’s people. Reminding God of how they had been taken from slavery in Egypt and settled in the land of promise, they now cry out to the Lord in distress because they feel deserted and at the mercy of their enemies. There is some acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but the emphasis is on a plea for God to respond with the loving faithfulness that God extended in the past. When I hold this psalm together with Isaiah’s song and interpretation, I find myself thinking of the present difficulties of the church in Ireland in a slightly altered light. There is a strong sense here of opposition from a secular society and hostile media, but what about the anger of God? God is not duty-bound to wade into a situation on the side of God’s people. Sometimes their difficulties are a reflection not of God’s indifference, but of God’s indignation against injustices perpetrated in their midst.
Jesus’ parable also begins with the careful preparation and planting of a vineyard which symbolizes the people of God. His focus, though, is on those who work the vineyard, upon the leaders. They act as if they own the land, not as ones tending it for the rightful owner, and they respond with violence to any perceived challenge to their authority. The vineyard has become for them the arena in which to assert themselves and their own agendas. But Jesus warns them that God will not allow them to usurp God’s vineyard forever. God will intervene so that the vineyard is again enabled to produce its fruit.
How do Paul’s exhortations to trustful and righteous living connect with these texts of the vineyard? My secondary school’s prayer included these words: “Make this school as a field which the Lord has blessed, that whatsoever things are true and pure, lovely and of good report, may here abound and flourish.” The issue with the vineyard is whether it produces the appropriate fruit. Paul describes something of what that fruit should look like. His words also encourage us to keep praying to the Lord of the vineyard, and to trust that God’s loving mercy wins out over judgement.