Jesus walked before he talked. By this I mean that he saw his world up close and slow before he began his preaching and teaching. His use of biblical imagery is particularly effective because he knew the physical realities of growth and rot, care and neglect, competence and incompetence from personal experience. This is particularly important for understanding today’s gospel.
Jesus lived in Nazareth but as a general contractor – a better choice for the Greek word we usually translate as carpenter – he would have worked mostly in the Greek speaking town of Sepphoris It was about a 4 mile walk and there were many fields with sheep and many vineyards with grapes and olives. When he calls himself the good shepherd, he has seen the dedication of good shepherds but understands why the scriptures use bad, self-serving, shepherds as the most potent image of corrupt leadership. He brings his experience to give this image greater effect. So too today with the vineyard.
Jesus saw vineyards grow or decline on his walk to and from work. After an evening storm he would have seen branches that were separated from the trunk of the tree looking good and healthy on the morning walk to Sepphoris but they would have been obviously decaying on the way back to Nazareth and dead the next day. They were fit only to burn.
He also knew that vines left to themselves do not grow in an orderly manner. They need to be cultivated. This usually means pruning. According to Wikipedia Vine pruning is cutting most of the branches completely off and cutting back even the ones saved to mere buds. Otherwise, the plants will grow wild and be useless. Sometimes even with all this effort a plant may not be able to be cultivated and must be destroyed.
When Jesus says that he is the true vine and the Father the Vine grower he reflects both this experience and scripture; The clearest Scripture passage is from Isaiah. As people in our scripture study group are discovering most of Jesus favorite texts are from Isaiah.
Isaiah speaks of his beloved who planted a vineyard on what seemed prime territory, he did all that would be expected of him, but it yielded wild grapes. It could not be restored, and he made it a wasteland.
This vineyard was Israel or to be more precise the leaders of Israel who lived in comfort in Jerusalem but exploited the workers in their fields. Perhaps the very fields through which Jesus walked.
Isaiah tells the elite that the Lord said:
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry! (Is 5:7)
(The key sections of this hymn may be found below,)
This cry is the cry of the poor which the LORD always hears.
Isaiah was a city person. Jesus is a man of the country and today’s passage is much more detailed than Isaiah’s. He speaks of pruning and casting out and fire. He is familiar with actual farming, but he also more detailed about what is going on spiritually.
The story of the vineyard comes after the last supper and Jesus’s discourse on discipleship. He exhorts them to act as he did. Indeed, telling them: Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)
The story of the vineyard answers what they will do and how they will do it. They will be able to do it because they “remain in Jesus” I like older expression to “abide in him”. We literally join in his life. This too he promised in the previous chapter: I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. (Jn 14:20b) This occurs when we let Jesus love us. Sounds simple but haven’t we all found it hard. Just let Jesus love us and we will take life from him just as branches take life from the vine.
Attentive Jews would have understood the references from the “Song of the Vine”. The deeds that disciples are expected to do begin with justice. That song continues with explicit denunciations of those who steal the property of the poor and make them work their lands for a pittance. The parallels to subprime mortgages are too close for comfort.
Now reading this passage you might have sense of, to quote Yogi Berra, Deja vu all over again. This reads very much like our second reading today taken from the first letter of John. This is not an accident. The letters of St John were written because some of the teachings of the gospel were not understood by people who were not Jews. I examine this in greater depth in the online commentary, but it is summed up in the first line of today’s reading: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”. (1 Jn 3:18)
The priority of Justice is the central message of the prophets and part of Jewish religious DNA. This was not the case with the peoples to whom the early Christians brought the good news. This is perhaps why Jesus started with the Jews and worked out. One of the tasks of these early evangelists was to tell those who heard them that although they did not need to be circumcised or eat kosher, they did need to know the Jewish understanding of Justice. One of the most contentious debates in the early church was if the OT was scripture. The leaders of the church insisted that it be deemed as important as the writings of the evangelists, Paul and the other authors who would form the new because without it the mind of Jesus will always be closed to us.
Let us take it slow. Not so much walking but reading John both the letters and the Gospel this easter season. Spend some time reading them with a bible with footnotes and look at a few of the OT references. This is not to increase our store of facts but to change our approach to life, particularly the new life we will need to live in the new normal. More often as not the lesson we will learn will be simple: if we wish to abide with God we must do justice to our neighbor.
Isaiah 5: 1-12
(Note there are footnotes, they can be found in the New American Bible.)
Now let me sing of my friend,
my beloved’s song about his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside;
2He spaded it, cleared it of stones,
and planted the choicest vines;
Within it he built a watchtower,
and hewed out a wine press.
Then he waited for the crop of grapes,
but it yielded rotten grapes.a
3Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem, people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
4What more could be done for my vineyard
that I did not do?b
Why, when I waited for the crop of grapes,
did it yield rotten grapes?
5Now, I will let you know
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
Take away its hedge, give it to grazing,
break through its wall, let it be trampled!*
6Yes, I will make it a ruin:
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
but will be overgrown with thorns and briers;
I will command the clouds
not to rain upon it.
7The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
the people of Judah, his cherished plant;
He waited for judgment, but see, bloodshed!
for justice, but hark, the outcry!*
Oracles of Reproach*
8* Ah! Those who join house to house,
who connect field with field,
Until no space remains, and you alone dwell
in the midst of the land!c
9In my hearing the LORD of hosts has sworn:d
Many houses shall be in ruins,
houses large and fine, with nobody living there.e
10Ten acres of vineyard
shall yield but one bath,*
And a homer of seed
shall yield but an ephah.
11* Ah! Those who rise early in the morning
in pursuit of strong drink,
inflamed by wine,
12Banqueting on wine with harp and lyre,
timbrel and flute,f
But the deed of the LORD they do not regard,
the work of his hands they do not see!g