Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with Isaiah. Nearly at the beginning of his work he speaks of his friend who cared for a vineyard. But despite his hard work the vineyard did not produce good grapes, but instead the vineyard produced “wild grapes.” Isaiah then called on the people of Jerusalem and Judah to judge the vineyard. The owner, who everyone recognizes as God, worked for crops of grapes and found wild grapes. Because of this the vineyard will be ruined. Jesus continued the grape imagery with a parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard and left it in the care of tenants while he went on a journey. At harvest time the owner sent three of his servants to obtain the grapes. But the tenants beat one of them, killed one, and stoned the third. The master sent another group who experienced the same thing. Finally the master sent his son, convinced that they would respect his son. But they didn’t. They saw this son as the heir to the vineyard and killed him, hoping to inherit the vineyard. Jesus then asked the chief priests and elders what the vineyard owner would do here. They answered that the vineyard owner would put these people to death and lease his vineyard to other tenants. Jesus then quoted Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in your eyes?” He finishes by telling them: “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to the people who will produce its fruit.”
I live in California and probably should know more about grapes than I do. I like grapes and have been wine tasting in much of California, parts of Virginia, New York, and Maine. This has given me some understanding of how grapes and wine taste, but almost nothing about how they are grown and cultivated.
So what exactly are “wild grapes?” I’ll cheerfully admit that preaching has become dramatically easier in the age of the internet. With the help of Google I learned that “wild grapes” can also be translated as “bad grapes.” Grape growers today will tell you that they labor long and hard to make the grapes we eat and drink. Cultivated grapes don’t come to us easily and require work and expertise on the part of the grape grower. Nearly 2000 years after these readings we know a great deal more about what makes a grape good but the grape growers in Isaiah and Matthew worked just as hard as grape growers today.
Now imagine a grape grower who put his heart and soul into a vineyard only to find that his work was wasted, and that his crop was no better than it would have been if he had done nothing. So what does the owner do? He can cultivate these wild grapes and sell them at a loss. Or he can walk away and let the vineyard fall into ruin. And that’s what Isaiah tells the people God will do.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the husband of one of my patients years ago. They were a Catholic family and they sacrificed to send their son to Catholic school, expecting that he would find value in being Catholic and find his path with the Catholic Church. After this child graduated from high school he joined another faith. His father looked on this as a bad investment: “If I had known he would leave the church I could have saved all that money and sent him to public school”
Much like this husband, God could have regretted his investment. God promised his faithfulness to his people, but watched as he chosen people did not respond with their faithfulness. God promised to respond to unfaithfulness by abandoning his people.
But as we can see in the centuries since Isaiah, God has broken his promise and has fiercely not given up on us or looked on his faith in us a bad investment. Clearly Isaiah sees the grape grower as God and the grapes as God’s people. But Isaiah’s warning speaks to human justice while our history pointes instead to God’s love. No matter what we’ve done to become wild grapes, God has treated us as cultivated grapes.
And that brings us the bridge into Matthew’s Gospel. Much like last week he is speaking to the chief priests and the elders of the people. After last week they I’d think they would not continue to engage Jesus because it doesn’t go well for them. Well, they didn’t and 2,000 years later we can continue to find amusement in their arrogance.
Once again, Jesus sets a trap for the chief priests and elders, and once again they stepped right into it. From our perspective it’s ridiculously easy for us to see the landowner as God, the servants as the prophets, and the son as Jesus. And in fairness, since this happened before Jesus was crucified, we can see better with hindsight.
Nonetheless, when Jesus told the parable about the master who leaves his vineyard in care of his tenants, the chief priests and elders reacted as they normally did: Someone of lesser intellect brings them a problem (or tells them a parable) and they pass judgement. Much like last week, it probably did not occur to them that Jesus was going to turn this parable on them. Again, much like last week, Jesus tells them a parable with a ridiculously easy answer. In nobody’s world would a landowner will his land to a group of tenants who killed his son. They should have known better.
Jesus then quotes Psalm 118, which all of them would immediately recognized, and once again threw down. Last week they were told they would go to the “end of the line” but this week Jesus tells them the Kingdom of God would be given to others.
From our perspective we can easily miss just how shocking this must have been to those gathered. No modern analogy completely works, but let me try this: a young lawyer appears before the Supreme Court of the United States asking for an opinion on a clear issue. They hand down the obvious opinion thinking they are helping this young lawyer learn about right and wrong. But instead the young lawyer lectures them, accuses them of wasting their time and others peoples’ money. He tells them that the good people aren’t them, but instead are the people who work in their cafeteria. The good people are those who actually produce something.
I don’t use this analogy as a backhanded way to slamming the Supreme Court (for which I have a great deal of respect). Instead, I use this to show that Jesus had little patience for people who thought themselves better than others because of how they were treated by others. I can tell you from my experience as a priest that humility can often become a challenge. I found myself overwhelmed by the respect and admiration I was given by people who barely knew me. I hope it called me to work hard in my teaching and preaching but I noticed that some of my brother priests took this respect and admiration as a way of thinking themselves better than others. To quote a Hollywood cliche, they “believed their own press.” They basked in this admiration and I sometimes wondered what they did all day.
Since the Church doesn’t grant people the title “chief priest or elder” and since few of you who read this are priests, what are we to make of this? I think these readings call us to a radical humility that forces us to look across roles. The person who washes the dishes at our favorite restaurant protects us from bacterial illness and the person who cleans the restroom at our office (who we’ll never meet because she works at night) protects us from hepatitis. The teachers in our lives gave us the ability to read and write, to balance our checkbook, to find wonder in our universe, and to understand the history of what got us to this place. We think ourselves better than them at our own risk.
Spoiler alert: Tune in next week because Jesus isn’t done with the chief priests and elders.