Some pairings of Gospel and Old Testament texts are so tightly linked in imagery that the preacher’s task becomes one more of presentation than theme. That is the case this Sunday, as Aaron Couch describes their connections.
Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-7
Imagery for the parable may have been drawn from Isaiah’s “love song” concerning his beloved’s vineyard. Just as Isaiah announced God’s judgment on the leaders of Jerusalem in the eighth century B.C., so Jesus indicts the temple authorities of his time. That the tenants in the parable certainly do not love the owner, but are only concerned with their own gain, suggests that Jesus believes that the temple authorities are devoted to their own power and privilege rather than to God.
The parable becomes a telling of salvation history, with the landowner’s slaves representing the prophets sent by God. The story reaches its critical turning point with the arrival of the son, who represents Jesus himself. While it is unlikely that there were any circumstances under which actual tenants could have taken an inheritance by killing the rightful heir, historical plausibility is not the parable’s purpose. Instead, the story functions to condemn the Jewish leadership for rejecting Jesus as Messiah. Matthew’s editorial concerns are visible in verse 39 (compare Mark 12:8), so that the parable conforms more closely to the events of Jesus’ death.
Jesus tells the story in such a way that the religious authorities pronounce judgment against themselves. The owner will take the vineyard away from them and give it to others. It is important to resist reading this parable in any manner that suggests the church will supersede and replace Israel as God’s covenant people. Certainly the church’s history of persecuting Jews calls for a different reading of the text. In addition, the parable itself is not concerned with the status of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Jesus directs his words specifically against the temple authorities, not the Jewish people. Unlike Isaiah 5, judgment does not fall on the vineyard itself, but rather on the rebellious tenants. The powerful Jerusalem elites will lose the privilege of representing God’s rule. Against them Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22–23.
The “song of the vineyard” . . . effectively hides its true meaning until the end, when it is revealed that the vineyard represents the kingdom of Israel. In this way, the poem delivers the announcement of judgment with devastating power. Isaiah of Jerusalem denounced the betrayal of covenant loyalty on the part of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth century B.C. The prophet’s consistent themes are summed up in parallel accusations in verse 7: no justice, no covenant fidelity (righteousness).
– Aaron J. Couch is a pastor at First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
Thematic clarity still leaves a preacher with questions like those posed by Ron Anderson about the Epistle reading.
Philippians suggests that the vineyard might be worthless apart from knowing Christ Jesus as LORD. As Isaac Watts wrote, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” In what ways do we express our desire to know Christ today? . . . Is our relationship to Christ such that we would willingly suffer the loss of all things for the sake of that relationship?
—E. Byron Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
Homily Service 38, no. 11 (2 Oct 2005): 3-14.