As we move closer to the end of the year, the end of the Gospel, and Matthew’s last sermon, on last things, in our Gospel this week Jesus demands from us the fruits that he planted in his vineyard.
Our reading from Isaiah sets the metaphor for many Gospel parables about vineyards. “What more was there for me to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” the Lord asks. “Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild [or sour] grapes?” And in his anger, as Jesus with the fig tree, he pledges to destroy the vineyard: by letting Judah be taken to the Babylonian captivity, and later by letting the gentiles partake of the privileges of his people Israel.
The last words of the parable are key, because they describe the fruit he seeks: “He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!” The translation is awkward. In the Old Testament, “judgment” refers to good judgment, and especially just judgment: treating people right. The word translated “justice” means more generally “righteousness.” But instead of just, his people just hurt one another. Instead of righteous, they squeal and make others squeal.
Don’t miss this parable’s connection to another Gospel parable, the lead one from Matthew’s third sermon, on parables. There we read about seed planted (i) on a trampled path, which is (ii) eaten by animals; (iii) on stony places, where it is (iv) scorched by the sun; among (v) thorns; and (vi) on good soil.
In our reading from Isaiah, the master of the vineyard removes the stones (iii in the list above), to make (vi) good soil, but when he is angry he breaks down the hedge so that it will be (ii) eaten by animals and (i) trampled; then he commands it to be (v) overgrown with thorns and (iv) scorched by the sun. Every one of the elements lines up.
The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 (we read it way back in mid-July) is quoting this parable in Isaiah. But where the parable in Matthew might make it sound like Jesus is responsible for the seed and we are responsible for the soil, the parable in Isaiah emphasizes that the Lord has given both good seed (“the choicest vines”) and good soil, and his people have still failed to bear the fruit of righteousness. Isaiah pushes us deeper into the mysteries of grace: we cannot say that God made us the bad soil in Matthew’s vineyard. Somehow we have rejected his efforts to clear us of stones.
That connection leads us into our reading from Philippians. Rather than “anxiety,” as if everything depends on us, we should live by “petition, with thanksgiving,” because everything, even the good soil in the vineyard of our hearts, comes from him. If we live this way, always “in Christ Jesus,” “the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds.”
Then he urges us to “think about” “whatever is true” and honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy – one of the most beautiful sentences in Paul. Modern people tend to dismiss thinking, but Paul shows us that meditation is the way seeds are planted in our hearts. Then we can “keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen”: we do what we learn. We receive the righteousness and peace of Jesus into our hearts by hearing his word and meditating on it.
Our Gospel is full of inversions. The first strange detail is that in his vineyard he places a tower. That detail is in Isaiah too. It paints a picture to help evoke the Old Testament prophet.
But the tower here works three ways. First, it makes the vineyard beautiful. But second, it lets the wicked tenant see the Lord’s servants and son coming – so that they can attack. And third, it shows the vineyard to those on the outside: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. The conclusion of the story is that the vineyard – that is, Jerusalem, the city on a hill, and the heavenly Jerusalem – is given to a new people, who in Isaiah are always streaming in to that exalted city.
So too with the fruit: we are called to bear fruit for the Lord of the vineyard, but instead they want to keep the fruit for themselves.
A third inversion: the messengers. All the servants and prophets, and finally the Son, reflect the Lord’s love for his vineyard. We are still in the context of the lost sheep. But the other sheep turn into wolves, and the lamb sent to call the lost sheep home is slaughtered. The cornerstone becomes a stumbling block.
The fourth and final inversion: God’s mercy. It is rejected because it seems to allow unrighteousness, but it really prepares the way for true righteousness. We are still in the context we discussed last week, the context of the chief priests and elders who reject the prostitutes and tax collectors who followed John the Baptist. In context, the punchline of this parable is that those who count themselves righteous will lose the kingdom, and “tax collectors and sinners will go into the kingdom of heaven before you.”
Why? Because those who count themselves righteous fail to bear the fruit of justice and instead attack God’s messengers of mercy. But of course, those messengers of mercy are not calling us to be tax collectors and sinners any more than they are calling us to be Pharisees and chief priests. They are calling us to bear the fruit of the Gospel, to live lives transformed by the peace that passes all understanding, lives that reflect whatever is true and honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy.
How do you find yourself hoarding false righteousness instead of bearing fruit for the Lord?