Pierre-Henry Buisson October 4, 2020
St Luke’s, Prescott Proper 22A
If one day you have the chance to go to France, you should try a Pineau des Charentes. It’s a regional aperitif made with grape and Cognac, and it’s very good. As a seminarian, deacon, and priest I spent almost 9 years in the south of Charente-Maritime, in an area where you could see vineyards all around you. I saw how people were caring for their vineyards. I saw firsthand the countless hours they worked, the time, energy, labor, and love they put into their work. I saw their passion for their vines, their grapes, and their products. If you are not passionate you can not do this job.
Maybe you did not feel anything special when Jesus began his parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress, and built a watchtower. However, this short introduction brought back so many vivid memories to me, it tells us that the landowner greatly cared for his vineyard as would do any human winemaker and vineyard owner. We know that in this parable God is the owner, God prepared the soil, planted the vineyard, and lent it to tenants whose job was to take care of it. God planted the vineyard out of love. When we put in parallel this introduction with the beginning Isaiah’s reading, we realize that God has a love story with God’s vineyard, God’s people.
The problem with Isaiah’s vineyard is that the vines decided not to follow their God-given purpose. They were planted to produce good fruits, but they produced rotten and useless fruits. Of course, Isaiah’s story is not about viticulture, it’s about theology, it is about how to live a life centered on God, it’s about how to live a faithful life. The problems of the Israelites in Isaiah’s time are clearly spelled out: as people of God, as people of the Covenant, they were supposed to produce justice and righteousness. However, God saw only bloodshed and heard the cry of those who were exploited. In other words, God’s unconditional love for God’s people was turned to derision by God’s people. Rather than following the words of the Covenant to love God and love one’s neighbor in deeds and actions, they preferred to follow human instincts of greed, violence, and injustice. They practiced injustice in their daily lives, and at the same time they were worshipping their God with their lips.
The problem with Jesus’ vineyard is not between the landowner and his vineyard, but between the landowner and the tenants. The tenants don’t want to give back to the owner what is due to him. They want to keep all the fruits for themselves. The tenants represent the political and religious authorities of Israel. From the beginning of Israel’s history to Jesus’ time some took advantage of the people whom God loves, put burdens on their shoulders, and sometimes exploited them. Those tenants had forgotten that they were not the master. They had forgotten that they had been chosen and sent to serve God’s people and to make it fructify. They were supposed to help the people to produce the fruits of the Kingdom of God, fruits of justice and righteousness. During the long story of Israel, again and again, God sent messengers to God’s people to remind them the term of the Covenant, to remind them that the glory is God’s and only God’s; that God is the One who gives sense and meaning to human lives; that God’s people are supposed to show through their actions the love of God for God’s creatures. God’s people are supposed to take care of those who suffer, no matter their color, faith, ethnicity. The drama of Israel is that time and again when God sent prophets, they were received with doubt, unbelief, and many of them were beaten, persecuted, and killed.
Why was Jesus telling this parable, and to whom? We need to know that we are now in the last part of the Gospel according to Matthew. Three times Jesus foretold his death to his disciples on his way to Jerusalem. Then Jesus entered triumphantly in Jerusalem; people cheered him up with joyful Hosanna, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! He entered the Temple and drove out the merchants. The following day Jesus went back to the Temple, where he was teaching to the crowds. The religious leaders went to confront Jesus. So there he was specifically speaking to the chief priests and the elders of the people. With the parable of the tenants of the vineyard, Jesus was criticizing the religious leaders. They knew it without a shadow of a doubt, and they were upset with Jesus. Already they knew they wanted to get rid of him, and by the end of the week they would be successful: Jesus would be betrayed, arrested, and executed. So, I think that Jesus was also announcing officially his passion, death, and resurrection: the tenants would kill the Master’s Son, the Messiah.
With this parable, Jesus was also announcing that the vineyard will soon be given to a new people. Many scholars believe that the new people is the church made of both Jews and Gentiles. The important fact remains that this new people will receive a mission: to produce the fruits of the kingdom. In other words, to produce justice and righteousness, to be beacons of God’s love for all the creation, to proclaim justification and salvation in Christ, to work for justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The words of Isaiah, even though written so long ago, are unfortunately so timely for our world, our society, our Christian life. They are a reminder that we can follow some precepts, we can worship, we can pray all we want, that is not enough. If we are not able to love God and God’s children, if we are not able to love God and those around us, then we are not producing the good fruits we have been created to produce. We could summarize this with the words of Paul to the Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Love, love of God, and love of our neighbor are non-negotiable in order to live a Christian life, in order to produce the good fruits that God is expecting from us.
In this time of divisions, violence, hatred, injustice, anger, poverty, homelessness, in this time where some think they are better or superior to others because of their race, gender, power, money I think we should listen carefully to Isaiah the prophet. God’s dream for God’s people, God’s dream for our community, God’s dream for humanity, is a dream where love is in the first place; and from that love flows justice and righteousness. We might not be able to change the world’s way of life; we might not be able to change the things that are not going so well in our society, but if we started to put love at the center, divine, and unconditional love, we could at least change our own heart. If all Christians were able to put aside their worldly views to give room to the only thing that matters: love of God and love of our neighbor as Christ loves us, this world would be in better shape!
Like the people from Isaiah’s time we have always a choice in front of us, we can either follow the ways of the world and its false promises of happiness, success and vainglory, or we can follow God’s dream for us by producing good fruits, fruits of justice and righteousness. And that is a way of life. That is the way for eternal life beginning here and now. We are called to be the hands, eyes, feet, mouth of Jesus for those who suffer in any way. So, let us try once again to proclaim God’s amazing love with our lives.
I leave you with these words from the 1st letter of John: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and those who are afraid are not perfected in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother or sister, that person is a liar; for those who do not love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.1 John 4:18-20