The Word Embodied
The Vineyard Church
“He looked for justice, but hark, the outcry!” (Is 5:7)
We delude ourselves dangerously if we think our major task in reading scripture is to examine the historical period in which it was written. Admittedly, such study is a valuable tool for critical distance from and understanding of revelation’s context.
But if the word of God lives for us, it must be spoken now. It must be received now. Paul’s charge to the Philippians is that they live what they have learned and accepted. Living the word, more than the study of it, yields “God’s own peace beyond all understanding.”
If we are concerned only with knowing the historical context of Isaiah’s vineyard story, we may find out something about the people of Judah and their infidelities, but we will miss what the prophet has to say to us. And if prophets have nothing to say to us, why bother listening to them at all?
What if our contemporary church is seen as the new House of Israel, God’s cherished vineyard? What if we are that land, carefully cleared of stones, now filled with vines delicately planted? Then Isaiah’s words might shake us. “He looked for judgment, but saw bloodshed! He looked for justice, but heard cries.”
Despite everything that was done for this vineyard, despite all that was given, there was no true yield. So the owner gave the verdict: it shall all be torn down, eroded, and trampled, overgrown with briars and thorns. Are these words addressed to our church?
There is a temptation to make our holy books, even our privileged “New” Testament readings, into a collection of quaint bygone accounts, comfortably shelved in a mausoleum. Now and then, we prod the dead text, safely kept at arm’s length, with some thin academic stick that protects us from what we poke.
When Jesus looks at scripture, it’s a different story. He recalls Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard, but only to engage it for his own time and people. The leaders of his age were rejecting him, son of the vineyard’s Lord, just as they rejected the delegations of prophets before him.
What is worse, they reject him as the Son of God, even kill him, in the false hope that they will then get the inheritance for themselves.
When the Church applies this Gospel story merely to Jesus’ context, two things happen. A crude conclusion is drawn that the chief priests and elders (and even the Jewish people, as the story was later diabolically interpreted) were the source of Christ’s rejection.
More foolish yet, we Christians presume that we ourselves do not reject Christ in our own lives.
At our safe distance, we can shake our heads. See the results of their rejection of Jesus? They are all brought to a bad end, and the prized vineyard is left to others. That’s us. We are the inheritors of the new promise. We harvest what Israel did not. It’s as simple as that, we think.
But if we stop there, the gospel will never strike us. We simply avoid its force.
One of the great virtues of the Hebrew scriptures and those who conscientiously read them is that such an easy way out is never taken. The Jews not only recorded the bad news prophets brought; they remembered it and relived it in the telling. That is what Jesus was doing. And that is what we are called to do if we wish to encounter the Word of God.
The parable of the vineyard, in both Isaiah’s account and Jesus’ reformulation of it for his contemporaries, must in some way be a message given to today’s church. Although we believe in Jesus’ promise that the armies of hell will not prevail against us, that should not lead us to think that we ourselves cannot squander the gift of the vineyard.
The “always reforming” Church must always ask itself whether it seizes the vineyard inheritance for itself, rather than for the Lord of the harvest. It is only at great peril to themselves that the preacher, the mediator, and the institution, present themselves, rather than the Savior-Son, as the way of salvation. We put our very stewardship at risk if we follow a gospel other than that of Jesus.
Those who warn us that we neglect the ways of justice and close our ears to the cries of the poor are simply reminding us of the very gospel we proclaim. Those young people who wonder whether we stewards of the gospel are actually living as if the gospels didn’t exist are not posing the question from a “worldly” perspective. They are posing it because they have received the seed of God’s word and long to bear its fruit.
Isaiah promised that there would remain with God’s people, despite many infidelities, a “holy remnant” of faithful followers who carry the truth, cherish the message, and steadfastly tend the vineyard.
This remnant, I think at times, may be the saints or the “little” people—those who aspire to no human greatness, fabulous wealth, rank, or privilege. Perhaps it is they who, even in these hard days when many Christians seem to reject Christ as the rock of their lives, continue to build on him as their cornerstone.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University