“Let me now sing of my friend,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah. The friendship we have with the Lord has its roots in creation and in Judaism: in creation, for the Lord created the world and we who live in it; in Judaism, because it is through his covenant with Israel that he himself and his will, the will to live, become known.
The fruition of the covenant comes with Jesus Christ and his Church. The love of God for mankind has its origin and fulfillment in Christ. Jesus would use “friendship” to describe this love when he said: “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”
The readings for today’s liturgy describe the friendship between the Lord and Israel and its fulfillment in the relationship between the Lord and his Church by using the image of a vineyard. A vineyard is a garden that will grow grapes for eating and producing wine. A properly tended and cultivated vineyard can produce much fruit.
The Isaian use of this image focuses on the Lord’s care for the vineyard. Isaiah says: “My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside; he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest of vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press.” All these activities represent the loving care of God for his people. He provides for the people (the “fertile hillside”), he prepares the ground for planting, he plants his word among them which can provide great fruits, he protects (“watchtower”) and he offers them a means to preserve the fruit and make it even better by hewing out a winepress.
All this goodness and blessing has its source in God alone. This is the context for the next section of the oracle. While God’s blessings are abundant the vineyard produces “wild grapes,” which causes the Lord to cry out, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?”
A contrast is created between the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of Israel. They have forgotten or disregarded his blessings. They have abandoned his law of justice. They have turned away from his covenant. Isaiah’s prophecy is a call to repentance and return. God’s love does not go away. He remains faithful but wants his people to turn back to him to produce good fruit. He wants them to live in accordance with his will, a will that brings life in abundance.
Jesus takes the image of the vineyard and likewise offers a similar image of rejection. In this case, however, the rejection is seen in his person. God offers Israel friendship through the covenant. In the past when the covenant was forsaken prophets would arise to call them back. They speak for God and seek to reestablish faithfulness among the people. Yet many times they are rejected.
In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, the landowner turns over the vineyard to his workers. His workers are to care for the vineyard, to cultivate it and to bring it to harvest. At this time the landowner will return to collect the fruits. Jesus emphasizes here that all the fruits belong not to the workers in the vineyard but to the landowner, in other words, to God. All the fruits produced belong to him.
The workers in the vineyard however are rebellious. They refuse to return the fruits of their labor to the master holding them for themselves. The master sends numerous servants to the tenants but they are rejected. Finally he sends his son thinking: “They will respect my son.” But they do not. Instead they beat and kill him. Jesus is giving a clear indication of his own rejection and ultimate death.
The parable invites us to recognize Jesus as the Father’s son. The kingdom he establishes is God’s kingdom. The fruits of the kingdom belong to God not ourselves. Like Israel we might be tempted to forget the covenant, to forget the goodness of God in our lives, we might even be tempted to reject Christ. Care must be taken so that we do not fall into this type of behavior or attitude. The call to discipleship, the call to life in the Kingdom is a great gift, it is an invitation to life.
The second reading for today’s liturgy taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians encourages us to faithfulness. He writes: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
He continues by exhorting us to those things of the Kingdom through which we experience God’s peace: truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, and grace. Faith involves all aspects of life. Recognition that all things come from God and belong to him helps us to live the life he calls us to live. Striving to live in this manner will help us not only to remain faithful but to bear much fruit. We return these fruits to God when we offer them for the good of all and the spread of the Kingdom.
The covenant between God and his people is a sign of friendship. God’s love for us is freely given in this relationship. He calls us and he invites us to accept the life he offers. Jesus gives us this life through his death and resurrection. Even though rejected he becomes the cornerstone. He is the bond of friendship between the Father and his people. Today we have the opportunity to be renewed in this friendship and to live accordingly.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.