Our Gospel reading for this Sunday speaks of “when vintage time drew near.” Matthew’s Gospel builds to a fabulous crescendo, perfectly attuned to the liturgical year. It is a real gift of the reformed Lectionary that we can more directly experience how the rhythm of the year is right here in the Gospel.
Vintage time draws near. The end of the year approaches. And our Gospel readings move more and more towards thoughts of the end of time, and the coming of the owner of the vineyard to demand his produce.
Our readings this Sunday take us into this mystery of the Final Judgment by giving three angles on the same metaphor. The tensions among the stories help us to appreciate the many aspects of our relationship with the Lord.
In the Gospel, we are the tenant farmers. “When vintage time drew near, [the owner of the vineyard] sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.”
Jesus asks the hearers of the parable, “‘What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?’ They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’”
So in the first version, we are threatened that we must give the owner of the vineyard his proper fruit.
But in the Old Testament reading, from Isaiah, we are the fruit. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant.”
And he is angry with the grapes themselves:
“Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes. Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!”
Again, there is fearsome judgment at the vintage time. But now we are the produce, instead of the ones who are supposed to give the owner his produce.
Finally, in the Psalm it is not the Lord crying out against the vineyard, but the vineyard crying out to the Lord: “Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man whom you yourself made strong.” “Why have you broken down its walls, so that every passer-by plucks its fruit?”
All these angles of the story are true, and together they give us the full truth.
We are the tenants. It is our responsibility to work, to be holy, to do right. Isaiah too gives this angle: “he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!” Justice is the fruit the Lord calls for. And it is our responsibility.
But we are also the fruit itself. Though, like the tenants, we are responsible, what God wants is us ourselves. He doesn’t want the “fruits” of justice: he wants us to be just. The Judgment is not, finally, about whether we have been responsible with things outside of ourselves, but whether we ourselves are good. Whether, in fact, we love him.
And that is what we, too, want, so that as in the Psalm, we cry out to him and beg him to make us good. It is our responsibility to be good because the goodness must reside in us ourselves – but the source of that goodness is God himself, working in us.
And so the reading from Philippians takes us deepest into these stories of the vintage.
We cry out to God to make us good: “make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Notice that “guard” is just what he does for the vineyard: protect us, and make us holy! Deliver us from evil!
And we long for holiness itself, for the goodness which is God: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Do we know how precious we are to God? How much he wants us to be beautiful with holiness?