Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Allegory of the Vineyard

Thursday, December 6, 2007 -- Week of 1 Advent (Year 2)
(Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, c. 342))

"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --

Audio Podcasts of today's "Morning Reflection" and those from the past week are available from (go to St. Paul's Home Page and click "Morning Reflection podcast")

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p 937)
Psalms 18:1-20 (morning) 18:21-50 (evening)
Amos 4:6-13
2 Peter 3:11-18
Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew loves to create allegories. Unlike parables, which are enigmatic and often ambiguous, allegories have a straight-line meaning, with each character or image in the story representing one other thing. The landowner (God) planted a vineyard (Israel), put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower (God's providential protection and instruction). Then he leased it to tenants (Israel's leaders) and went to another country (heaven). At the harvest, the landowner sent his slaves (the prophets) to collect his produce. The tenants seized, beat, killed, and stoned the slaves. Finally he sent his son (Jesus). They seized him (the passion), threw him out of the vineyard (to Golgotha), and killed him (crucifixion). Now God will punish those wretches (the leaders of Israel) and lease the vineyard to other tenants (the Church) who will give him the produce at the harvest time.

Matthew's community is a Jewish congregation that is in conflict with the local Jewish authorities. It is likely they have been expelled from the synagogue, as increasingly happened to followers of Jesus-the-Messiah, epecially after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. Matthew's orientation is the most Jewish of the four gospels; it is also pretty polemical.

There are several stories about vineyards and landowners and tenants in the gospels. It's hard to know what the original version of these stories when spoken by Jesus might have been. Jesus used the common images and circumstances of peasant life when teaching and telling stories. One of the more interesting features of in-depth study of the gospels is the conversation among scholars debating about the meaning of the texts as we have them and creatively trying to reconstruct what Jesus might have originally said that, over time, evolved into the stories we get from the evangelists.

Matthew has taken the elements of a familiar agrarian injustice and turned them into an allegory about Jesus, "the stone that the builders rejected" which nevertheless has "become the cornerstone." He uses the story to announce that "the kingdom of God [has been] taken away from [the Jewish authorities] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom [the disciples of Jesus]."

One of the more interesting commentators trying to uncover the original context and behind this story argues that this may have been a story addressed largely to Zealots and others who sought to overcome the injustices of a predatory economic system that powerful absentee landowners manipulated to force peasants into foreclosure and debt so that they lost title to their ancestral lands and often ended up in virtual slavery or jobless, and hopeless. The anger and desperation that this system produced left people ripe for militancy, and Jewish Zealots (the Romans would call them terrorists and bandits) urged them toward armed resistance and rebellion. It may be that the original version of this allegory was a story from Jesus saying that such violent response would only bring more violence.

The most familiar images of vineyard and land are those having to do with living in a way that is grounded in the divine life and so connected to the life of Jesus that one is energized by God and produces abundant fruit. In that image, whatever threatens the health of the branches and fruit needs to be addressed. When properly pruned, weeded, trained to grow in the right way, the plant will naturally produce good fruit, abundant life blessed by God.

And the bottom line, it all belongs to God. The land, the vine and the fruit. Trust God, and do not resort to militant means of control or abuse, and life will be fruitful.



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