We find the key to unlock Sunday's first and third readings in one verse from the second (Phil 4:6-9). "Live according to what you have learned and accepted, what you have heard me say and seen me do."
"Live" is the important word. Through the years, many people learned and accepted much of what Paul taught; they heard his message and watched his actions. But few actually integrated his words so deeply into their lives that they imitated his behavior.
Most fell into the trap of believing that, as long as they agreed with his message and admired his actions, they were doing what God wanted. Instead of making faith a way of life, they turned it into a harmless intellectual adherence to a package of doctrines. They rarely meshed mind with action.
Say and do
The refusal to integrate intellect and behavior is faith's biggest problem. Seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus' public ministry, Isaiah created the well-known "Song of the Vineyard" in reaction to it (Is 5:1-7).
"Let me now sing of my friend," the prophet declares, "my friend's song concerning his vineyard." The friend laid out everything correctly: He spaded, cleared, planted, built, hewed. "Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes!" He could have saved himself the work and strain. Wild, worthless grapes sprang up everywhere.
But just as the prophet's audience begins to laugh at his friend's frustration, Isaiah mentions the zinger. Yahweh is the friend; Israel, the vineyard! "What more was there to do for my vineyard," Yahweh asks, "that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?" Instead of judgment, Yahweh discovered bloodshed; in place of justice, an outcry.
No wonder God takes away the vineyard's hedge, breaks down its wall and brings in animals. Yahweh has no other alternative except to turn a choice piece of property into pasture land.
Since the devastating Babylonian Exile happened just 50 years after Isaiah originally spoke those words, most Jews at the time of Jesus thought the vineyard oracle and its aftermath were long in the past. Fossilized in their imaginations, it was brought up only when someone discussed Isaiah's ministry. Since the Exile had ended over 500 years before, most Jews didn't think the vineyard image relevant to their everyday lives. Imagine their surprise when Jesus prophetically breathes life back into the story, updates it, and lays it on them (Mt 21:33-43).
A new version
"There was a property owner who planted a vineyard," Jesus begins, "put a hedge around it, dug out a vat and erected a tower." The chief priests and elders of the people immediately know where He's going. But Jesus doesn't tell the story exactly as Isaiah narrated it. He quickly launches into a concept of tenant farmers.
In Jesus' account, there's no lack of good grapes; there's a lack of good renters. "When vintage time arrived," Jesus continues, "The owner dispatched his slaves to the tenants to obtain his share of the grapes. The tenants responded by seizing the slaves. They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third." Those who were originally entrusted with someone else's possession are not acting as if they're the owners and not the caretakers.
Finally, in lines which seem to come from early Christian reflection on Jesus' ministry and not from the historical Jesus Himself, the Lord puts His own rejection into the story. Had the Jewish leaders really been concerned with caring for the faith Yahweh entrusted them with, they would never have killed the very person who came from God to seek a reckoning of that faith. God has no other choice but to turn the faith over to "a people that will yield a rich harvest:" the Gentiles.
No matter how much Jesus and the Christian community altered Isaiah's original story, they still used it to convey the same message. God works with those who put God's word and will into action. It makes no difference whether or not we belong to "the true church," or whether we have a position of authority in that Church or are just simple believers. Faith isn't faith until it's lived.