Ancient Answers

1 Comment

How is our vineyard doing?

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) provides another example of a problematic Gospel passage that begs for context. Unfortunately, the way the Orthodox Church reads this parable on the 13th Sunday of Matthew only increases the difficulty of reading this parable with an open mind.

But before we consider the difficulties of this parable, let’s look at a couple passages in the Book of Isaiah. In chapter 46 of Isaiah, God speaks to his people:

“Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,

all the remnant of the people of Israel,

you whom I have upheld since your birth,

and have carried since you were born.

I have made you and I will carry you;

I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Some pour out gold from their bags

and weigh out silver on the scales;

they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,

and they bow down and worship it.

They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;

they set it up in its place, and there it stands.

The difference is huge: God carries his people; but worshippers of idols have to carry their idols! But the same God who carries his people also passes judgment on his people. It is a living, unfolding relationship. It was never smooth and it is never smooth. Consider this passage from Isaiah, chapter 5:

I will sing for the one I love

a song about his vineyard:

My loved one had a vineyard

on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones

and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

but it yielded only bad fruit.

What more could have been done for my vineyard

than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes,

why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you

what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland,

neither pruned nor cultivated,

and briers and thorns will grow there.

I will command the clouds

not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty

is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;

for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Israel’s relationship with God was never smooth; it had its ups and its downs. The parable of the wicked tenants could have been spoken by Isaiah. Note the similarities with Isaiah 5: There is a vineyard, there is blood and violence, and there is the threat of destruction. It’s God speaking with his own people! But the parable has been misused throughout the Christian era as a rejection of Jews and the replacement of Israel by the Christian Church. This has led to centuries of antisemitism, persecutions and the Holocaust. 

Isaiah and Jesus had the same message: God looks for fruit from his vineyard. Jesus in John 15 spoke of himself as the vine and we the branches; we remain in him in order to produce fruit. It is always about fruit. As it was in ancient Israel it is in the Church. 

Sometimes I wonder why Matthew includes so many attacks on the Jews in his gospel. Is it perhaps because he was a tax collector, which had made him one of the most hated people in Jewish society?

Did you notice the violent response of the listeners to Jesus’ parable? “He will put those wretches to a miserable death….” Jesus ignores their answer and he goes on to quote Psalm 118 about “the stone which the builders rejected…” The liturgical reading on the 13th Sunday of Matthew ends there, but Jesus went on with all-important context:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people (or, nation) producing the fruits of it.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.

Who are the people (the nation) that Jesus threatens will receive the kingdom? Is he threatening the Jewish people that he will take the kingdom from them and give it to gentiles and future Christians? That is the traditional church interpretation – and it has led to 2,000 years of antisemitism. But notice how the priests and the Pharisees interpreted the parable as aimed at them. And notice further that the “multitudes” of the people saw Jesus as a prophet! Before we get too puffed up that God now chooses the Christian people over the Jewish people, let’s look at more of the context in Matthew chapter 21. What came before this parable?

He went to the Temple and drove out the sellers and money-changers. He then cursed a fig tree because it had no fruit. He told the parable of two sons. And at the end of that parable he says the tax collectors – tax collectors like Matthew! – and prostitutes “are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The parable of the wicked tenants follows immediately after that. So who are the people that the kingdom will be given to? Doesn’t Jesus give us the answer here? Tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, sinners.

God was not looking for a new nation or a new race of people to replace the Jews. God looks for the tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, those who are not puffed up with their own righteousness the way priests and pharisees of all stripes and all times are. God looked for fruitful living – whether from the Jews or from Christians. The criterion is always the same. The challenge for the church is the same as it was for ancient Israel: Are we producing fruits of righteousness and faith? Are we doing the will of the Lord, or are we doing our will? Is the church his vineyard, planted in the midst of the world for the blessing of all, or is it our little spiritual escape from the world? Is it a vineyard that is full of life? Or is it a vineyard that is dying because of neglect and lack of vision? Indeed, how is our vineyard doing? Is the owner still welcome here? Or have we driven him out? These are the challenges of today’s parable.

A slightly different version of the above was given as a sermon on August 26th:

Leave a comment

A Pleasant Vineyard?


(Click to enlarge)

I’d prefer not to bother with Noah and his sons in today’s reading from Genesis 9:18-10:1. I’d rather leave Noah to his drunken nakedness and the racist curse he pronounces on Ham’s son, Canaan. What’s so terrible about Ham seeing his father drunk and naked? And why put the curse on Ham’s son who had nothing to do with this? Oh wait, isn’t Canaan the land the Jews would occupy a thousand years later? How convenient for Noah to curse Canaan ahead of time – a thousand years ahead of time! And you thought the Bible doesn’t have some axes to grind? On the other hand, today’s reading from Isaiah 26:21-27:9 is quite a remarkable passage. It also has a nationalistic component, but it is more subtle.


It seems we will have to contend with Benjamin Netanyahu and his hateful policies for a few more years; he represents the part of the Jewish nation that is still stuck on Noah’s curse of Canaan. But there is another whole segment of the Jewish people that is able to see things differently. Today’s reading from Isaiah gives us some hints of this alternative to Netanyahu and his bellicose maneuverings. I watched again Spielberg’s movie, Munich, the other night, and again I was struck by its honesty and stark grasp of reality – without of course being able to offer any guidance or solutions.

Honesty does not sit well with men like Netanyahu. When Spielberg’s movie opened in the fall of 2005, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, denounced the film as “presumptuous” and “superficial”. He accused Spielberg of putting Israel’s Mossad and the Palestinian guerrillas on the same moral plane: “This is an incorrect moral equation. We in Israel know this.” Yes, and ten years later it seems many in Israel still “know this” and vote for Netanyahu.

Is there an answer to the complex relationship between Jews and Palestinians? I don’t know, but it should never be “incorrect” to raise questions and look at the facts honestly. Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and the U.S. don’t like honesty. They prefer the immoral machinations that play into people’s prejudices, imperial ambitions and faulty biblical assumptions.

Can Isaiah offer anything to us on this day after Netanyahu’s re-election? Chapter 26 is titled “Judah’s Song of Victory” by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The title of course is not part of the Biblical text, it has been provided by the NRSV translators. And it is a song of victory. But whose victory is it? God’s victory, obviously, over the enemies of Judah – even though some times in the Hebrew scriptures victory is sung when there is no victory! Let’s not worry about the historical context of this “song of victory.” Judah was the southern kingdom of the Jews, the area around Jerusalem, the land of David and the favored land of God Yahweh.

Like a woman with child,
    who writhes and cries out in her pangs
    when she is near her time,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
    we were with child, we writhed,
    but we gave birth only to wind.
We have won no victories on earth,
    and no one is born to inhabit the world.
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
    O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
    and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (Isaiah 26:17-19)

These words, are they unique to the experience of the Jews in ancient or in more recent times. Could they not also be sung by any oppressed people? By the Ugandan or Eritrean refugees who drown in the Mediterranean in their attempts to escape hopeless lives? By the millions who flee the poverty and drug cartels of Central America, hoping to find new lives in the United States? Who hope that “their corpses shall rise”? Yes, these words were penned by a Jewish prophet and they express his people’s renewal of hope – 2,700 years ago; and also 70 years ago, after the liberation of the death camps in Europe. But could they also not be spoken or sung by the Palestinians who in these past 70 years have experienced the opposite of the Jews’ hope? Is there no way that these enemy brothers could sing this song of victory together?

“Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in,” we read at the beginning of chapter 26. Open the gates of Jerusalem, for the righteous nation. Who is righteous today? Is any nation righteous? In one scene late in the movie “Munich” one member of the group that hunted down the terrorists of the Munich Olympics questioned whether what they were doing was consistent with Jewish righteousness. Today’s reading from Proverbs is full of talk of righteousness, but the righteousness that Robert was debating in the movie was a much deeper and shattering righteousness than the petty moralizing of Proverbs.

On that day:
A pleasant vineyard, sing about it!
   I, the Lord, am its keeper;
   every moment I water it. (Isaiah 27:2-3)

One of God’s favorite images for Israel is the “vineyard” – an apt image for that part of the world, where grapes are so central to life and the image of vine branches is such a powerful symbol for God’s own relationship with the people. Jesus himself borrowed the image: he is the vine and we are the branches, drawing life from him (John 15:5). But the image of the vine is made more powerful by the need for constant pruning of the vine. God prunes the vine branches so they will bear even more fruit. It’s a beautiful image for life lived under the tutelage and power of God’s hand.

God’s purpose is for Israel to take root, blossom and fill the whole world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6, edited). But, If it gives me thorns and briers, I will march to battle against it. I will burn it up” (27:4). Jesus himself used this language in his own parables of the vineyard (see, for example, Mark 12:1-12). Israel is God’s favorite people, but God does not pander to them or coddle them. If they’re unfaithful, God’s blessing is taken away. This fundamental truth is encountered throughout the Hebrew scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. 

Israel is a pleasant land. I took a group to Israel in 1995, and it was fortunately a time of relative peace. We even got to visit one of the settlements that have become the cause of so much violence and intransigence. Our Jewish guide was superb, but he never missed an opportunity to highlight the difference in cleanliness and order between Jewish towns and Palestinian towns. Yes, modern Israel has made the desert blossom, but at a cost.

I’ve never read the Quran, so I don’t know if there are songs of lament in it. I do read the Bible, though, and songs of lament are even more numerous than songs of victory. Perhaps Palestinians should start reading the Bible of the Jews and start singing those songs of lament and exile as their own. Perhaps then something of the commonality between these estranged brothers will begin to manifest.

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?