There was a landowner who planted a vineyard” (Matt 21:33).
Jesus’ parable of judgment is made more poignant in that it is based on one of the great love songs of the Bible. Isaiah 5:1-17 describes the covenant God established with his chosen people with the imagery of a vineyard. “Let me tell you about my friend who planted a vineyard.” Each part of the vineyard is a described in loving detail. If you know someone who has planted a garden and is eager to walk you through it, you know the pride and the feelings invested in this special place.
What happens to God’s vineyard defies both logic and love. Those who would have been blessed by its bounty betray the owner and turn a love story into a tragedy. By confronting the religious leaders of his own time with this story, Jesus ties their rejection of him to the murder and rejection of a long line of prophets before him.
The story recorded in Matthew takes what may have been the original parable to the level of an allegory. The successive messengers sent to the tenants are the prophets. The owner’s son is Jesus himself. Matthew is composing his Gospel toward the end of the first century, so what happened to Israel and to Jerusalem is already known. The city was destroyed by the Romans, over a million people were killed, and the survivors were dispersed into the ancient world. Temple Judaism was destroyed and replaced by a diaspora of rabbis and their communities in cities like Alexandria, Rome and Antioch. It was there that the first Christian communities were established as the early church spread into the Mediterranean basin.
The produce of a vineyard is wine, a symbol of joy and celebration, especially at weddings like the one at Cana in John 2. Disciples spread the joy of the Gospel as workers in God’s vineyard. We are all called into this love story, not just as laborers but as branches grafted onto the vine of Jesus, sharing his life intimately, producing the fruits of his redemption with all those who thirst for the love of God. Our worship culminates in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Each time we receive the Beloved Son, body and blood, we say yes to God’s invitation to share the joy of both divine love and human love within the community. The owner has sent his only-begotten Son to receive the harvest of our own lives, planted deeply in his garden.