A few weeks ago my goddaughter, who is also my niece, was baptized in San Francisco, and I was privileged to be there to take part in the service. The day before, her parents, Andrew’ s brother and sister-in-law, took on us a tour of three wineries in Napa. Wow! I had never toured Napa before. Such an indulgent and decadent day: drinking wines on hillsides overlooking acres of terraced grape vines; sipping wine before its time, out of oaken barrels in the underground vaults with the vine maker himself. I think the very word ‘vineyard’ has a romantic charge to it, a glow. It breathes. It evokes easy evenings spent sampling fine cheeses, a leisured and gracious way of life. In some ways, Napa is a long way from the hard realities of the business of agriculture and the vineyard imagery in the Bible. And in some ways it is not.
In the Song of the Vineyard, Isaiah begins a love song celebrating a vineyard harvest that quickly turns into a lamentation. Despite the vine grower carefully selecting fertile soil, clearing it of rocks, planting choice vines and erecting a watchtower and protective hedges to keep out unwanted predators, the harvest has betrayed him. The coddled vines have yielded bad fruit that must be destroyed. The vintner is livid. Andrew and I learned on our tour of Napa that French winemakers are in the habit of serenading vines that live up to their potential, and taunting those that do not. If a vine produces an overabundance of thin-tasting fruit, rather than concentrating its life force into a few robust grapes, the French vitners will taunt that vine, spit on it, call it names that cannot be repeated in church in any language, abrading the vine for its “promiscuity.” Well, the vintner in Isaiah is no less serious about his crops. He sees the bad grapes not only as a failure but as a personal affront–and He declares that he will destroy it all. He curses his land. He says that no rain will fall on this once fertile hill. It will be become utter desolation (5:5-6). Oh, the time he has wasted!
As with our Gospel, the Isaiah passage is an allegory. The vine grower is Yahweh, and the vineyard represents God’ s people. God has taken great, patient care in nurturing the vineyard. He has patiently tended to his people for years and years, forgiving them, giving them endless chances to redeem their lives. God has been true to his covenant with Israel and they have blown it. Instead of pursuing justice and righteousness, God’ s beloved have responded with bloodshed and oppression and for no apparent reason. The Lord is heartbroken.
In the allegory of today’s Gospel there is no doubt of who the speaker is and who the tenants are; even those present who want to see Jesus arrested and silenced get the message. Matthew leaves no doubt in retelling the story: The landowner who planted the vineyard is God; the tenants are the people of Israel; the slaves who are repeatedly sent to the vineyard, only to be put to death, are the prophets; the son is the one speaking to them, the one whose death is approaching because his proclamation of the kingdom of God is being rejected. The kingdom will be given to those who bear fruit, Jesus tells them, not to those whose indifference kills the prophets.
The readings today offer us the age-old mystery of a total love given to another that should blossom forth in bountiful fruit, but that, when refused or abused, unravels in destructive tragedy. Dostoevsky wrote that religion is about “a harsh and dreadful” love. So it is with these Scriptures. We tend to think that religion is dreadful only for us mere mortals with its harsh demands; demands that are simply not part of our 21st century reality. We’ve got it rough because we’ve actually got to pursue a life that is spiritually and morally acceptable to Christ. Tough stuff to long for God, search for God, in busy lives that are nothing but one distraction after another.
These passages from Isaiah and Matthew point out one of the great paradoxes of Biblical faith: God’s longing pursuit of humanity. This is what I mean when I said, “Religion is about a harsh and dreadful love.” It is as harsh and dreadful to God as it is to us. It is a love so enduring that the Father sent his beloved, into the dangerous territory of rebel tenants saying, They will respect my son’ (Matt 21:37). Is it not dreadful to think of a Father who would send his son as a sacrificial lamb into the midst of murderous wolves? Surely this love of the Father is harsh and dreadful –for him and us–but it is also redeeming and wonderful. Jesus laments over Jerusalem and brings to expression this shocking side of God’ s love, a love that will ultimately end in his own death. These parables give us the smallest glimpse into the grace of God.
Yet, Jesus makes clear in the parable that when we, who manage the vineyard, become obstacles to giving worthy fruit back to God, he will simply will find new workers. But giving up on us, crushing us with the weight of the cornerstone, is not what our Lord wants for us.
What are the fruits Jesus expects from us when he calls for the rent in his vineyard today? These are not outdated words. They continue to call us to care for our neighbor in the forms that we call love. This is not just a greeting card sentiment about feeling good toward our neighbor; about wishing the best for those who are suffering; and empty prayers directed to the needy. The fruits of the vineyard have to do with the way we live our lives daily in our homes, at our work, in our neighborhood, for those whose lives which have been torn apart and devastated by war and natural disasters, sickness and addiction, hopelessness and poverty, and troubles of every sort. Perhaps James was thinking of this parable when he wrote in his epistle, What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks in daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and filled,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
Religion is about a harsh and dreadful love, and what a gift it is to us. For the stone that the builders rejected has become our cornerstone made real for us in baptism where we are brought from death to life, and in the Eucharist, where we share the fruit of the vine, our cup of blessing, so that through us God’ s love and mercy have triumphed.