As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” If old Ben was right about one of those things, it’s that in water, there was and is certainly bacteria. This is a problem both ancient and modern. What happens when you drink bad water? Most often, you get diarrhea – sorry for the reference but here’s the point – diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day. It’s the second leading cause of death for children under 5 worldwide.
And so what do you drink when you can’t drink the water? Well, if your lucky but poor, mead or beer; if you’re lucky but rich, wine; if your lucky and have nothing else to do, some manner of distilled spirits. If you’re unlucky, rich or poor, you drink the water.
The ancient Israelites drank a lot of beer and wine. The beer was weak, sort of like if Miller 64 had about half of the alcohol it has now, but it wasn’t full of bacteria and it contributed calories, amino acids, and other nutrients to a people who didn’t have the type of food abundance we have today. Unless you were truly well off, wine was used mostly in celebratory situations and in religious ritual, and wine was truly prized by the Israelites, they were rightfully proud of their high-quality wine.
Vineyards, then, were both materially and spiritually significant. God Himself spoke of Israel as His vineyard, a land that He cultivated and protected. The Israelites were His chosen vines, whose good fruit brought Him honor and showed the world His grace and power.
But what happens when those chosen vines begin to wither and their fruit fails? Well, both our lesson from Isaiah and the parable of the vineyard from Matthew tell that story. “In each story, the Lord of the vineyard gives good soil, choice vines, and ample protection for the vineyard. But then he does not receive the good fruit that the vineyard should have given him, either because the vineyard doesn’t produce good fruit or because the tenants won’t give the good fruit to him. There are penalties for this failure to give fruit to the Lord. The unfruitful vineyard is left to go to ruin. The tenants who won’t give the fruit to the Lord lose their lives and their vineyard, which is given to others.”1
Figuring this parable out is not so difficult. Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees while in the Temple in Jerusalem, the same temple in which just a day before He overturned the tables of the money changers. His authority to do such a thing was challenged, as you might expect, and so Jesus tells them this parable as a witness against the Pharisees, calling them wicked tenants, the type of people who couldn’t see a good things right in front of them – the type of people who deserve a good smiting.
It’s easy, when reading these parables, to lay the blame on others. Who amongst us would let something as precious as a vineyard go to ruin? Who amongst us would steal the grapes and kill the vineyard owner’s son? The simple answer is just about everybody.
We are all subject to the human propensity for self-destruction, for rejecting what is good and choosing the bad. I, for one, am very good at choosing the Chocodile over the banana, even knowing that I’m probably a Chocodile or two away from problems I could otherwise avoid. Then there’s that greener grass over there, the feeling that somehow, someway, life is better for everybody else than it is for you. Then there’s the disease of self-righteousness, the idea that I do everything right, I only art holy, and for that, I deserve some kind of special reward, a seat at every table.
The Church is the everlasting vineyard of God, and despite living in a vineyard, despite possessing the word of God, despite being His cherished vine, a whole lot of people end up just like the Pharisees: taking joy in nothing, lacking gratitude for the gifts God has laid down at their feet. And so comes self-destruction, actively or passively leaving the vineyard to ruin, the vines withering, the vineyard owner’s calls left unheard. That is the cost of rejecting God and those whom God sends to us, but God isn’t the type who just gives up on stuff. I saw a quote this week from St. Maria Goretti, who said, “(God) loves, He hopes, He waits. Our Lord prefers to wait Himself for the sinner for years rather than keep us waiting an instant.”
St. Maria’s thought was correct but incomplete. God also prods, pokes, calls, and visits us, first in His prophets and His saints, and supremely in sending His Son Jesus Christ, who cares enough for the vineyard and the vines to live and die as one of us. The vineyard has a loving and attentive owner, and so our question becomes What kind of tenants will we be?
1Eleanor Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/27OrdA100817/reflections_stump.html