The Vineyard of the Lord

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

“The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.”

Isaiah 5:7a

Jesus loves telling parables. No surprise there. It’s just God’s style. A parable is similar to a myth or an allegory in that it is a story that conveys a more profound truth than the surface meaning of the words. Often such stories can help us understand a truth with more depth and nuance than if it were stated directly.

It is possible to view all of creation as a “parable” in the sense that reality is a story told by God. Everything about this universe, including all of human history, reveals some deep truth about God and how He relates to us.

In the reading from Matthew’s gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, but the background for this parable is found in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. 

Isaiah speaks of his “friend” who planted a vineyard, tended and cared for it, but the vineyard bore no fruit. It was therefore given over to grazing and made into a ruin. Isaiah tells us the point of this story: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant” (Is 5:7). Israel is not bearing the fruit God expects — the fruits of justice and mercy — so Isaiah, like all the prophets, is calling them to repentance. Note that even though they aren’t bearing fruit, God still refers to his people as “cherished.”

There are hints of a double meaning in this parable. Scripture scholar Dr. John Bergsma points out that the Hebrew word translated here as “friend” isĀ dowdi, which also means “beloved.” The same word is used to describe the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon where the bride is frequently referred to as a vineyard or a garden. So this parable is also a love story. God is both the vineyard owner who cultivates his vines and the loving husband who tenderly cares for his bride. The failure of Israel to produce good fruit is also an act of unfaithfulness.

When Jesus tells his parable in the gospel, he introduces a new element. In his version, the landowner entrusts the care of his vineyard to tenants — these are the very people Jesus is speaking to, the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people.

When the landowner sends servants to the tenants to obtain the produce of the vineyard, the tenants mistreat and kill them. This is how the authorities of Israel often treated the prophets, including Isaiah, whom tradition says was sawn in half by Manasseh, the king of Judah. Finally the landowner sends his own son, but the tenants also kill him. The parable ends with the landowner removing the tenants and entrusting the care of his vineyard to others who will produce the desired fruit. 

The straightforward meaning of this parable is about the Church, which God is establishing as the New Israel. But we must be careful how we understand this. It is not as if God removed his favor from Israel and established a new and separate covenant with the Gentiles in the Church. No. The new covenant in Christ grows from the same root as the old. 

The people of Israel remain God’s chosen and cherished vineyard, only that vineyard has now been expanded, with new peoples grafted on to the vines. The vineyard now includes not only those genetically descended from Jacob, but people from every race and nation, as was prophesied by Isaiah (and others) in the Old Testament. In the final chapter of Isaiah, God promises to gather people to himself from all nations, some of which He will make new priests and Levites (Is 66:18, 21). Care for this expanded vineyard has been given to new “tenants,” the Apostles and their successors the bishops, right down to the present day. 

Because this new and everlasting covenant is for all peoples, it is called kataholos (universal) in Greek, which is rendered as “Catholic” in English. And so the Catholic Church is made up of both Jews and Gentiles, made one because they have been grafted on to the true vine, Jesus Christ, by sharing in His Body and Blood. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” says the Lord. “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit” (Jn 15:5).

The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and all those baptized in Christ are members of the New Israel, the Church. Let us be faithful brides and fruitful vines, bearing the fruits of mercy, justice and charity for our Lord and God.