Isaiah and Matthew imagine God’s love as the owner of a vineyard pruning his vines and tending to his fruit.
We sing not enough of the dialogue with God! It is, after all, something eminently to be sung out, danced round, lyricised – since as Isaiah, poet, mystic says – it is of love we speak, and the greatest love of all – that of God for the whole of creation. Isaiah makes his song even more moving and intimate: ‘Let me sing to my friend the song of his love for his vineyard.’ Isaiah beautifully proposes to remind God in a love song of God’s own love for the ‘vineyard’, which is Israel. Why imagine God’s choice of a lover as a vineyard? May it be that just like the product of a vineyard – God’s sweet wine is meant for everyone to drink? Isaiah’s friend (God!) has a vineyard on a hillside. He outlines to his friend the steps he has taken to care lovingly for it. Yet the love song, like the wine the vineyard produces, turns sour. As lovingly as the friend has tended the vineyard, so as despairing is his terrible sadness when it only produces sour grapes. The friend then dramatically leaves his silent role in the song of Isaiah and makes a personal appeal: he asks the community to judge between the vineyard and him. There is a terrible poignancy in his appeal as his sorrow turns to anger. He will despoil his lovingly tended vineyard. The depth of the love of God for love offered and rejected cannot but be ‘awful’ or ‘awesome’. God expected justice but found only bloodshed. There could be no more vivid story of the immensity of the love of God in the whole of the Old Testament. And the immensity of the rejection of that love.
It is then amazing to see in Paul the transformation which occurs when and if a return of good fruit repays the love of the vineyard owner – as he is so convinced it has been. In all that could induce anxiety in 1st century Greece and in our own day, Paul simply says: ‘There is no need to worry!’ He has experienced that peace of God which comes through Christ Jesus, changing hearts and thoughts, understanding and will. The effect of being open to the great dialogue with God is here described. Our minds can be filled (as with wine) with ‘everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure….’ Then there is not bloodshed but justice and as Paul says – peace!
Jesus re-enters the song, the story of the vineyard but puts far deeper and more disturbing words to the old tune well known to his audience – the chief priests and elders of the people. He takes the song to a new and global level. In this twist to the story, the landowner leases his vineyard to tenants who attempt to steal the vineyard and its produce even as he attempts to collect its fruit. Eventually, they kill the owner’s son. He then draws the religious leaders into passing judgement on the tenants, without them realizing they will thereby pass terrible judgement on themselves: ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him when the season arrives.’
Matthew drives the lessons home, as it applied to the religious leaders of the Jewish people but also as it applied to the Church leaders of his own day and therefore, as it applies to all religious leaders today of Christian churches or of any religion: ‘you are not the owners of any religion or spiritual wisdom (vineyard), only God is; you are merely tenants, and the validity of your tenancy will be judged by whether you can produce the fruits, not for your religion, but of the Kingdom of God, the landowner’.