October 8, 2023
Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 or Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 19 or Psalm 80:7-15
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20 (Is 5:7a)
Most people I know enjoy listening to love songs or even singing them at karaoke. Many couples have a love song that they claim as their own. One of my favorites is “Chances Are,” which was made popular by Johnny Mathis in 1957—and which also happens to be a special song for my husband and me.
Not all love songs are quite as sweet as “Chances Are,” since love, after all, is deeply entangled with other human experiences and emotions. Besides expressing affection, love songs sometimes give voice to hurt or estrangement—think, for example of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” which sings of love tinged with regret.
In today’s reading from Isaiah, we hear a song of divine love—a deep and faithful love for an entire people. Isaiah’s song recounts the care of God for a vineyard—the divine grower lovingly digging and clearing, planting choice vines, and building wine-making facilities. God has waited for the beloved vineyard to yield good grapes for wine, but instead it has produced only wild, rotten grapes. The love song becomes a lament as the Holy One turns to the listeners to judge between God and the vineyard.
The vineyard is identified as the people of Israel—a people who have failed to bear fruit despite the love and guidance that God has provided over the generations. The previous chapters of Isaiah lay out an indictment of the people’s injustice and make a plea that they return to the covenant with the God who loves them deeply. This song expresses not only love but also frustration with this people. God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Is 5:7) The people are about to suffer severe devastation in the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity inflicted by foreign powers.
The devastation of the vineyard may represent God’s judgment, but responsibility for its lack of fruitfulness belongs to the vineyard itself: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Is 5:4)
Jesus was clearly familiar with Isaiah’s love song, using it as the basis for the story we hear in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus’s parable of the vineyard is the second of three pointed parables he tells in a testy encounter with the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In the tale of the vineyard, Jesus casts these elders as the tenants who have been unfaithful in their stewardship, failing to produce fruit for the benefit of the landowner, instead persecuting the owner’s servants and killing the son.
Like the vineyard love song of Isaiah, Jesus’s parable and its critique of the religious leadership flow from a deep love for the people that God has chosen. Throughout his ministry, Jesus singled out the lowly ones, the sinners, and the outcasts as specially favored in the reign of God. He invites all of us, and especially those in positions of authority, to sing God’s love song, bearing fruit by caring for all people with an open and compassionate heart.
We are both the object and the instrument of divine love–God singing the love song to us and through us.
A Hymn for Today: “The Keeper of a Vineyard”
Before becoming an Episcopal priest, Michael Hudson had been a successful Contemporary Christian songwriter. After his ordination he turned his attention to creating a collection of hymn texts for the Lectionary, Songs for the Cycle: Fresh Hymn Texts for Church Years A, B, & C (Church Publishing Inc., 2000).
“The Keeper of a Vineyard” reflects on and expands the image of the vineyard in today’s Gospel reading as well as the image of the life-giving vine found in John 15.
The keeper of a vineyard dreamed
Of vines alive with fruit
And tended vine and dream alike
Down years of sharp dispute.
As others came to claim the land,
To drink its fruit as spoil,
Without a grower’s love of growth
Or farmer’s love of soil.
The keeper had a child, firstborn,
Who came to work the land.
The malcontents desired his life
But did not understand—
This life, once it was given up,
This blood once spilled like wine,
Would soak deep down into the ground
And rise up in the vine.
And then the plant, fresh charged, would be
Itself a vein of grace,
A way the keeper might extend
A hopeful, green embrace,
Connecting child and foe and friend,
Comingled and entwined,
To be and bear the fruit of God
In one life-giving vine.
Text: Michael Hudson, © 2004, admin. by Church Publishing Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.
Image Credit: Vineyard by the Mosel, Peulle, Wikimedia Commons
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.
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