Jesus' Gospel allegory of the vineyard made sense to His original audience only because they were familiar with Isaiah's vineyard song in Sunday's first reading (Is 5: 1-7).

Both Jesus and Isaiah presumed Yahweh created the Jewish religious experience as certainly and deliberately as someone plans and constructs a vineyard. Yet each also presumed that either the creation or those to whom the creation is entrusted can rebel against the creator.

The creation itself is at fault in Isaiah's allegory. "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?" Yahweh asks. "Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?"

Isaiah leaves no doubt about how to interprets the story: "The vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are His cherished plant; He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hard, the outcry!"


It's significant that the "wild grapes" which the plants produce have a lot to do with people's relationships with others. According to the allegory, the only way someone can be certain his or her actions are in accord with God's plan is to judge whether they build relationships or tear them apart. When "justice" is mentioned in Scripture, it almost always refers to the ties we have with those around us.

Though Jesus also begins His allegory with an account of someone planting a vineyard, He quickly takes it in a different direction from Isaiah (Mt 21: 33-43). The grapes seem to be so fruitful that the sharecroppers refuse to let the landowner share in the produce. They not only beat, and sometimes kill the owner's servants, but eventually they even murder his son when he's sent to check out the situation.

Scripture scholars have no idea how much of this allegory comes from the historical Jesus and how much comes from the early Christian community. During His earthly ministry, Jesus certainly dealt with religious functionaries who refused to lead their people in the direction Yahweh had pointed out through the prophets. So the allegory's basic message fits perfectly into the Galilean carpenter's proclamation of God's kingdom being in and around us.

New generation

But woven into the original story is also a second- and third-generation Christian belief that Jesus is already God's son, and a conviction that "God's kingdom will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit."

This latter idea seems to have entered the faith only after Jesus' followers became convinced that the majority of their fellow-Jews never would accept the reforms He had initiated and preached. Those other "people" to whom the kingdom is given can only be the Gentiles, who are being received into the Christian community in droves.

Of course, just as Isaiah gave norms for the kind of fruit God's vineyard should produce, so Jesus' followers had norms for the sort of things their leaders should be concerned about. Paul clicks off some of them in the second reading (Phil 4: 6-9).

"Brothers and sisters," he encourages the Philippians, "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. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me."

Given the scandalous revelations in our Church this year, could the Gospel Jesus and Paul actually be addressing our leaders, and not those of their own day and age? Scholars constantly remind us that, if they aren't, the early Christian community wouldn't have included such passages in our Scriptures. (10-03-02)