Lectionary commentary: twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary time
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 5:1-7
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 80:9. 12-16. 19-20. R/. Is 5:7
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:6-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:33-43
Would it not be wonderful, and full of grace, if what we hear each Sunday was read to us with all passion with which prophets and scribes etched painstakingly on scrolls? Would it not be a gift, as it was of old, to hear in our hearts words of love, of faith and hope, words of warning and words of correction? Would we not be blessed to experience their passion for the God they served? Would it not be a wonder of love if God’s holy words were not merely read? Would it not be godly if they were proclaimed, heart to heart?
Suppose we did not merely listen but were moved by the word of the Lord? For five chapters Isaiah details the danger of a people who have made God a stranger in their land. He hears the cry of God, the God of love whose outreach is compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation? But there is a crisis in the court of heaven. There are no applicants willing to undertake the task of speaking God’s words to a lost people:
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
Suddenly God and the whole heavenly court hear a voice shouting from the pain of the world:
Here I am!
When we have listened, when we have uttered our Thanks be to God, will God’s heaven be deafened with our ear-shattering shout:
Here we are!
Of course people who proclaim God’s words from the lectern must realise that every word they utter is infused with the Spirit of God. Every word they read was passionately etched on expensive papyrus or sheepskin and even on copper plates. The faith of an Isaiah or an Ezekiel, a Paul or a John was steeped in passionate conviction. So persuasive were the words that began in the Book of Genesis and made their way to the Book of Revelation that they were proclaimed again and again and, in God’s good time, were heard in every land under the sun.
We must realise how cherished were God’s holy words by those who copied them again and again, who translated them into a library of languages? How many voices were and are raised around the world proclaiming an astonishing faith:
the word of the lord!
Do you know that even today if you were a scribe engaged by the local synagogue to write a copy of the Book of Genesis for use at the lectern, how carefully you must be? If, as you write the very last sentence of the fifty chapters, you made a mistake in one word, then you must scrap all that went before, order a new parchment, and begin again, going from right to left, with,
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ
in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth?
If such reverence must be given to the words on the page, how much more reverence must be given when the words are solemnly proclaimed to God’s holy people? When reading in the synagogue the reader uses a yad, a kind of metal pointer, to trace each word lest the sacred text be touched by human hand, or a reading mistake be made.
When the reader has proclaimed God’s words to your congregation is there a universal shout from the pews, shattering the very gates of heaven,
Here I am!
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 5:1-7
I have set out the text of today’s reading from Isaiah to illustrate how the poem moves from God’s election of a people destined to become a light to the nations dissolving into failure. God calls on the inhabitants of Jerusalem to jury service to try the case. Then sentence is passed and the identity of the vineyard is revealed. The jury is made to realise that it is the vineyard of the Lord and therefore the verdict is against themselves. When the Lord looked to them for righteousness, there was none to be found.]
How might this reading become a challenging proclamation to all of us who sit in the pews? We will shout Thanks be to God! when we are told that what we have heard is The Word of the Lord.
But what exactly are we thanking the Lord for?]
The singer of today’s song is God, the Lord who created the people of Israel as “a garden of delight”. The song is a love song that turns into trial by jury. How might the voice(s) at the lectern proclaim the mood shifts in the song? The first stanza sings of the attentive care with which the vineyard that is God’s people. But it ends in bitterness.
Then this song of love turns into a lawsuit. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are appointed to jury-service. The Lord’s love has met love’s demands. Yet members of the jury can surely see the wild grapes. Then the Lord tells what he intends to do.
Only then is the identity of the vineyard revealed: it is the jury who is on trial. It is the House of Israel. The vineyard was tended lovingly in order to yield grapes of justice and righteousness. But the vineyard planted with such tenderness issues only in bloodshed and iniquity.
How might reading be transformed into proclamation? The drama of the Passion of Jesus, read on Good Friday, requires a variety of voices. The parish team of readers whose vocation demand they become proclaimers must decide how reading should be presented to engage hearts and minds to hear word of spoken to them:
The Lord sings:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
A garden of Love:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
The guilty party:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry!
The word of the Lord.
This is not an easy passage to present to a congregation. It is not easy to turn this reading into proclamation, to open hearts as well as ears. Perhaps identifying the movement of each stanza of the poem might help.
First, the composer (Isaiah) identifies the singer of the song as the lover of the vineyard:
Let me sing for my beloved …
This vineyard is the apple of the Lord’s eye. No matter what else we learn in the poem, we the song is a song for my beloved.
The vineyard beloved by the Lord is on a very fertile hill. Notice the care that attended its creation. The ground is prepared, cleared of stones. The vines planted are choice vines. A tower is built so the vineyard is stoutly protected. A winepress is conveniently installed in the protective tower. There is every expectation of rich grapes aplenty. But the harvest from the fertile hill is sour grapes.
The song has turned to a lament and the singer invites the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the whole population of Judah to become a jury of judges. They must judge between the vineyard and the Lord who created it. What could have been done that was not done in order to ensure a glorious harvest? Surely the expectation of plenty was not misplaced? Yet the yield was wild grapes.
The fate of the unproductive vineyard is spelled out in a stanza of hammer blows of I will, undone: the verdict is decisive:
I will remove the hedge. I will, on and on, until the vineyard is
It will be utterly obliterated. I will break down the wall, the first line of defence of any city, so that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will stand naked before enemies. Every edifice will be trampled down: I will make it a wasteland. There will be no repair, no new planting: It will not be pruned or hoed; briers and thorns will spring up. There will be no reviving rain: I will also command the clouds to rain no more.
All is revealed. For the vineyard that has been created by the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel. The Lord looked for justice and the harvest was injustice and unrighteousness. The devastating outcome of the Lord’s good planting is expressed in a series of puns that is beyond English translation. The Lord expected a great harvest from such careful planting. God looked for mïspāț (justice) but instead what was yielded was mįśpāh (bloodshed).
If the message of the song is that humanity brings judgement upon itself, how is a congregation moved to hear the song so as to be led to examination of conscience?How may the reading be proclaimed so that repentance is done, a firm purpose of amendment made, and the world is transformed? Can Isaiah’s words become the Word of the Lord in our days?
The purpose of dissecting the poem of Isaiah in this way is to illustrate how important is the ministry of proclamation in our celebration of Mass. The server carries a candle from the altar to the lectern and back again to the altar at the conclusion of the Word of the Lord. In this way the presence of the Lord in the Word and the Presence in the bread and the cup is proclaimed. There are not two presences. There is one Presence, given to us in words and given to us in bread and wine. So it is that those women and men who proclaim the Word must be aware that they are instruments of consecration, ministers who speak the Word of the Lord in unity with the consecration of the bread and the wine. Word and Sacrament are one, a visitation of divine Presence to challenge those who hear to become proclaimers of God’s ways to the world.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 80:9. 12-16. 19-20. R/. Is 5:7
R/. The vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
It sent out its branches to the sea
and its shoots to the River. R/.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it. R/.
Turn again, O God of hosts!
Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted. R/.
Then we shall not turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call upon your name!
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts!
Let your face shine, that we may be saved. R/.
The vineyard theme is at the heart of the first reading, the Responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel of today. It is an image rich in biblical traditions. Among the prophets images of vines and vineyards are found in Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Joel, Haggai, Zechariah. Even Proverbs offers a sad image of a neglected vineyard:
I passed by the field of a sluggard,
by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
Vines and vineyards turn up eight times in that passionate love song, the Song of Songs. Consider these verses as you ponder today’s Gospel:
Solomon had a vineyard at Baal- hamon;
he let out the vineyard to keepers;
each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
My vineyard, my very own, is before me;
you, O Solomon, may have the thousand,
and the keepers of the fruit two hundred.
Song of Songs 8:11-12
The same images are found in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. There is a single reference in I Corinthians 9:7 and in Revelation 14:18. It is no wonder that Jesus raised a cup of wine, blessed it, and bid those who walked with him to take and drink.
The biblical vocabulary of plantation is first found in Exodus 15:17 which relates that the people who have been brought out of slavery in Egypt are planted on God’s mountain:
You brought them in and planted them on your own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode.
The theme is vividly used in a text in Jeremiah:
Yet I planted you a choice vine,
wholly of pure seed.
How then have you turned degenerate
and become a wild vine?
In the Hebrew Bible the image of the people planted as a vine in a well-tended vineyard is often positive and full of promise: God’s people will be what God wants them to be:
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified.
There are four profound sentences in the Gospel of John. Jesus is the vine and the Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that grows from Jesus the vine and does not bear fruit, the Father will take away (John 15:1-2).
In Psalm 80, as in the first reading from Isaiah, the planting and tending are exemplary. The vine that was brought out of Egypt, under the Lord’s leadership, drove out everyone from the sea to the River (the Euphrates? the Jordan? the Nile?). The question arises: Why did God allow God’s own beloved people to be conquered by internal tribal fighting and by the mighty armies of imperial powers?
The immediate impetus of the conquered is to beg the God of hosts (a military term) to deliver the vine and to protect it. If only God would shine his face upon the ravaged vineyard, then it will be saved. And, almost as an after thought, we will call upon your name. It almost seems that faith is a bargaining chip.
The psalm does not really reflect the whole prophetical meditation on God’s people as God’s vine, planted and tended with every care, yet abandoned because a people called to mirror God to the world has produced nothing but sour grapes. There is more to be said, as we shall wee in the parable of Jesus proclaimed to us this very day.
There is one issue that escapes comment when we listen to stories of the deliverance of the ancient people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and other imperial repressions. The deliverance is usually achieved by God unleashing divine might and utterly destroying peoples. It is not a matter of occasional slaughter. It is a matter of divine policy. The Book of Joshua records the all-conquering blitzkrieg that destroyed the residents of the land given by God to the slaves whom God delivered from Egypt. There was no mercy, only a policy of extermination:
So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.
Not a word of peace was spoken. Joshua carried out the will of God to the last letter:
For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.
In today’s Gospel the parable the Lord of the vineyard is determined to put those wretches to a miserable death (Matthew 21:41). Yet in this same Gospel in the solemn Sermon on the Mount Jesus demands that those who would follow him must,
love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
If we are instructed to love our enemies, ought not God be obliged to do the same? This is a question that will have to be faced at some point in these pages.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:6-9
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
The word of the Lord.
[A note: There is much discussion about chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to Christians in Philippi. The chapter is fragmentary, a bit bitty. It opens with what looks like the beginnings of a final farewell:
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
When he says Finally, in 4:8, he still has about 15 pretty long sentences to go. We need to be aware of these problems and to understand that ancient writings were not produced with the aid of typewriters or computers. When a letter of Paul (or any letter) was copied to be sent to interested parties such as other communities founded by Paul, the copy was only as good as the copyist and we know that there were lots and lots of mistakes. However, we need not be too concerned about the problems in last chapter of Philippians, even if it is a bit hiccuppy.]
Paul’s chapter 3 very forcefully warns the little churches in Philippi of dangers from “the dogs” and “the evildoers” (who may have been Jews who were insisting that would-be Christians must adopt the full identity of Jewishness: see 3:3-6). Such people must not be permitted to cause anxiety. For living in prayer and thanksgiving is an assurance of the peace of God and the guardianship of Christ Jesus.
The paragraph beginning “Finally” tells his church people in Philippi to imitate him in all things—
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things.
Paul is not boasting. He was well aware that whatever he had achieved as an apostle of the Lord Jesus was done through the grace of God and thus in the power of the Holy Spirit. There are sentences of autobiography in chapter 3 that warn those who would seek to imitate Paul of Tarsus to reflect on his pathway to faith in Christ:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:33-43
[Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:]
Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son. ’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance. ’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.
The Gospel of the Lord.
This is an excellent example of a parable growing in the telling. This parable is to be found in Mark 12:1-11, written before Matthew, and in Luke 20:9-19, written after Matthew. Each has details not found in the other two. Each of the three editions has edited the original parable as told by Jesus in order to illustrate matters relevant to each evangelist and the community each sought to serve.
Matthew follows Mark’s account but as we come to the end of his version careful readers will notice a very considerable amount of material has been added. From Matthew 21:41 onwards, Matthew is more detailed than either Mark or Luke.
Again, readers and hearers must be aware of three levels: the parable Jesus told, the parable as it stands in each Gospel writer, and the parable proclaimed from the lectern to Christians living in the 21st century.
The Jesus parable
It is not easy to go into reverse and work our way back from Luke to Matthew, to Mark, to Jesus. In fact, we would have to include another version of the parable that occurs in an ancient text that did not make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas. What we can say is that the context in each telling of the story is the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. Mark, Matthew and Luke each situate the parable in that last week of Jesus in Jerusalem. Luke relates that Jesus spoke the parable the people. That may be Luke broadening the relevance of the parable beyond the chief priests and elders of the people.
Since the last days of the life of Jesus were in effect a confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities who put him to death, it is reasonable to believe that Jesus spoke the parable to his enemies. The three parables (the two sons, the wicked tenants, the wedding feast) fit well the challenge that Jesus through down to the authorities. The voice we hear is the prophetical voice of the prophet from Nazareth, speaking truth to power.
The Matthew parable
There can be little doubt that Matthew edited the parable of Jesus so that it spoke to the little congregations of the Church in Antioch. Clearly, as all four Gospels writers did, he adapted the Jesus parable so that it speaks to new times and new concerns. When Matthew wrote,
What do you think?
Hear this parable,
he intended that what Jesus spoke to chief priests and elders of the people was relevant to what was happening in the churches of Antioch. Matthew was concerned that, though the parable of Jesus spoke to the rejection of God’s son in Jerusalem, it is also addressed the rejection of the gospel of Jesus being proclaimed in that great city in Syria.
I am convinced that Matthew added the quotation from Psalm 118:22-23 to reinforce that all rejection of Jesus is an undoing of what God intends in sending his Son to the world. Our reading from Matthew omits the verses that Matthew added to the whole parable in order to make it clear to Antioch Christians that Jesus was speaking to them. Notice that Matthew, in his concluding commentary on the parable, speaks of the kingdom of God, not his usual kingdom of heaven, substituting a very Greek phrase as opposed to Mathew’s more usual Hebrew expression:
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.
It is clear in Matthew’s version that the son in the parable is the Son of God. Notice how carefully Matthew emphasises that the son is cast out of the vineyard as Jesus is cast out of Jerusalem and then put to death. Notice that the man whom Matthew called the owner … of the vineyard (as in 21:33) has become,
the lord of the vineyard
ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος.
Notice κύριος, as in Kyrie, eleison, Lord, have mercy. To be sure, that can be translated “the owner of the vineyard” but Matthew’s Greek-speaking Christians will well know that Matthew intends that the word is referring to God, the Lord they prayed to every time they met to break word and bread.
Jesus did speak the parable of the wicked tenants in the last days of his life, confronting the authorities with the crime they were about to commit in the interests of their version of religious orthodoxy. Jesus confronted the chief priests and the elders of the people for resisting the ways of God in the interests of tradition. He challenged their right to assume that their vision of faith was forever in line with God’s imaginative care for humanity.
What is equally clear is that Matthew edits the parable so that it spoke to the conditions that prevailed in the life of Christian faith in the city of Antioch. We must realize that the Church in Antioch was the creative centre of Christian faith for the first four centuries of its existence and, indeed, beyond, to this very day. After all it was in Antioch that Matthew’s Gospel was written. Many scholars believe that Luke’s Gospel also the light of day in that city. Some scholars (but not me) believe that Mark’s Gospel originated in the great city. What is true is that Matthew had a copy of Mark on his desk and most of that Gospel is found word-for-word in Matthew’s Gospel. Without the witness of Syrian Christianity, the message of Jesus would hardly have got off the ground.
Matthew's readers and hearers today
Is this a very ecumenical parable, a parable that speaks to our Church in the twenty-first century? For one thing, it is a parable that emphasises that the very centre of Christian faith is the sending of God’s Son with God’s hope for the world: The will respect my son.
There is a degree of violence in the parable. The tenants kill the son. In what ways do we kill the Son? Matthew’s Gospel is a challenge to every generation of Christians: have you never read...? Matthew again and again directs us to meditate, to pray, to study, and to live the Scriptures. In chapter 12 in a few lines the challenge comes twice:
Have you not read …
Have you not read …
In the years before the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) the Bible had little influence on the faith of our fathers or on the faith of our mothers. If a Catholic household - God forbid! - possessed a Bible, it remained a dusty and closed book. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel Jesus directs us to the God’s holy words (as St. Francis called the Scriptures). Thank God, since the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of a new Lectionary, the call to live by God’s holy words is loud and clear. Matthew insists that we become people of the book. Otherwise, as Matthew warns us, we will be building our house of faith on a heap of sand (see Matthew 7:26-27).
The message for today is as it was told in the days of old. Jesus, God’s Son, was put to death and in that death we are invited to see the love of God for the whole of humanity. In my imagination I see Jesus on the cross, outside the city, looking out to the world, embracing, even in the agony of death, every man and woman born into the pain of this world:
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The same gospel is proclaimed in the plain words we find in the Gospel of John:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.
 Try copying by hand the Hebrew text without making a single mistake!
The word yad in Hebrew means a hand.
 Of course,, chapters were not introduced into the Bible until the 12th century A.D.It would be more correct to say that in this part of his letter, he seems to be saying good-bye.