(The image is of vineyards in the Champagne region of France)
The images of vine and vineyard are found throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, Israel is a luxuriant vine, lovingly tended by the Lord, and in the New, Christ, as true Israel, true vine, acts as the link between the Old Covenant and the New, the Gentiles grafted onto the rootstock of Israel.
Wine, and consequently vines and vineyards, were important in ancient Israel. Wine is an integral part of Jewish laws and traditions, and was drunk at most meals. The fermentation helped to preserve and purify the grape juice. However, wine is presented as both a blessing and a curse, the cup of joy that, when consumed to excess, leads to drunkenness and the potential to sin. There are few verses in the Bible that speak positively of drinking to excess.
Wine was medicine – mildly antiseptic, a mixture of wine and oil was used to clean and soothe wounds. It was used in rituals in Israel, in Egypt, and all around the Mediterranean area.
Vines and vineyards are evidence of a settled people – the wandering in the desert has ceased, and the house of Israel will be sticking around in order to tend the vines that it has planted. They have become a rooted people.
Isaiah 5 : 1-7
1Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry! (RSV)
This is presented as a lawsuit between the vineyard owner and the vineyard – the owner, the Lord, sets out the evidence of His loving-kindness in the first four verses. He dug the vineyard over, cleared it of stones, planted it with choice grapes, built a wtchtower and hewed a winepress, took every care with it, and still the choice vines produced wild grapes – small, bitter and inedible – instead of the quality grapes that the Lord expected after all His care.
So the Lord asks the men of Judah to judge between Him and His vineyard, and the verdict is “guilty,” and the punishment clear. The protective hedges and walls, the protection of the Lord, will be removed, and the vineyard shall be left to choke on wild briars and thorns, and be trampled by wild beasts. It is a warning and a call to repentance to the house of Israel and the men of Judah.
Verse 7 is a play on words that doesn’t translate into English. The Lord looked for mispat (justice), but found mispah (bloodshed); for sedaqa (righteousness), but found sa aqa, (a cry). It is also a foreshadowing of verses in the New Testament which will be discussed later.
Isaiah 27 : 2-6
2 In that day: “A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! 3 I, the LORD, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest any one harm it, I guard it night and day; 4 I have no wrath. Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would set out against them, I would burn them up together. 5 Or let them lay hold of my protection, let them make peace with me, let them make peace with me.” 6 In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit. 7 (RSV)
The theme here is similar to the verses above. The vineyard is the Lord’s people, but here, instead of the Lord being angry at Israel producing bitter fruit, He is the protector of the vineyard, doing battle against the briars and thorns that threaten to engulf the vineyard. Israel is rooted in the soil, and protected by the Lord, and so can blossom and send out shoots.
Psalm 80 : 8 – 19
8 Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt; thou didst drive out the nations and plant it.
9 Thou didst clear the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then hast thou broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,
15 the stock which thy right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance!
17 But let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, the son of man whom thou hast made strong for thyself!
18 Then we will never turn back from thee; give us life, and we will call on thy name!
19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts! let thy face shine, that we may be saved!
This psalm is a lamentation, reflecting on the Lord’s previous care for His people, and their present troubles. Israel is a luxurious vine that stretches over all the land, providing shade and care for all. But the Lord has removed His protection, and the wall, the protection of the Lord, has been broken down, and the vines are under attack from people who an pluck its fruit, and from wild animals that trample and destroy.
The psalmist begs the Lord to turn back to his people, and vows that the people will return to the Lord.
Something else that struck me about these images of the walls being broken down, is that the walls needed to come down in order for the new covenant to be able to enter the Lord’s protection, that it’s not necessarily a sign of the Lord removing His protection from Israel.
John 15 : 1 – 11
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
St Martin, patron of winemakers and one of my favourite saints (I wonder why?) should have read this passage more often. The story goes that in 345AD, St Martin was visiting a vineyard that belonged to his monastery, and left his donkey tied to one of the vines. The donkey started eating the vines, and chewed some of them right down to the trunk. However, the next year, the vines which had been eaten by the donkey were the most prolific in the vineyard.
Vines fruit best when they are pruned, and pruned hard, and if we are to bear good fruit in the world, we need the painful and necessary work of pruning which, in the long run, does not hurt the vine but brings it great benefits.
A vineyard is an interconnected thing, just as, ideally, the Church is interconnected. The fruiting stems are grafted onto a rootstock which supports the vine and protects it against disease – phylloxera, a pest which devastated the European vineyards in the 1800s, was defeated partly by grafting European vines onto American rootstock.
Roses are often planted in vineyards because they are susceptible to the same diseases and, like a canary in a mineshaft warns of the presence of toxic gases, so a rose warns of the presence of disease in the vineyard. Just so, Mary, the mystical rose, watches over and intercedes for the vines in her Son’s vineyard.
Christ’s disciples cannot bear fruit unless they abide in Christ, just as a vine cannot survive unless it has roots. The disciples’ love is rooted in the love of the Son for the Father, and of the Father for the Son. Those who do not abide in Christ do not bear fruit, and are cut off and burned, but those who abide in Christ bear much fruit and prove themselves to be Christ’s disciples – “by their fruits you shall know them,” and bring glory to God the Father.
Matthew 20 : 1 -16
1 “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, `You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, `Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, `Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 12 saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
To me, this text is a foreshadowing of the Last Judgement, and warns against several things – presuming that you are one of the hardest labourers, and worthy of a greater reward, presuming to tell the Lord what He can do with His own, and begrudging the Lord’s goodness to others.
God’s kindness and generosity goes the extra mile. He satisfies basic justice – that if you work, you should receive a wage, and then goes beyond basic justice, regardless of whether the recipient is “deserving” or not. The grace of God goes where it wills and cannot be confined to mere human ideas of the “deserving” and “undeserving.” Divine reward is not dependent on human labour and cannot be confined.
He doesn’t restrict the reward to the first people hired, but keeps going back to the marketplace, and hiring more people, to bring them into the vineyard so that they can work and then receive their wages.
Matthew 21 : 33 – 43
33 “Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; 35 and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. 37 Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, `They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: `The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
This text references the first text that we heard today – the Lord, the householder, planted a vineyard, Israel, and guarded it, and protected it, but the tenant farmers, the leaders of Israel, refused to pay what was owed to God, rejected the Prophets, rejected Christ, and so were punished and new tenants, the Church, were installed into the vineyard.
We see again the traditional representation of Israel as the vineyard, again in rebellion and rejection of the Lord, but the criticism is reserved for the Jewish leaders, not for Israel as a whole. The vineyard, the Jewish people, is not harmed, but the tenant farmers are.
Romans 11 : 17 – 24
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
I’m not quite sure what Paul was saying here – grafting cultivated olives onto a wild rootstock, I can understand, but any horticulturist will tell you that grafting wild olives onto a cultivated rootstock is a waste of time. Still, St Paul was a tentmaker, not a botanist.
There is a shift here from the image of Israel as vine to Israel as olive tree, but the olive was (and is), just as vital to life as the vine is – it provides oil for lamps, for cooking, for medicine (wounds were washed with a mixture of oil and wine). In many places round the Mediterranean, damaging an olive tree is a serious crime.
Paul is not saying here that the Jews are to be cast out, that their covenant with the Lord is over, but is saying that the Gentiles’ are grafted on to the Jews. Just as a vine stem cannot survive without the rootstock, so the grafted-on branches of the Gentiles cannot survive without the trunk of Judaism. And, again, we see reference to bad fruits – if the grafted-on branches do not bear good olives, they will be cut off and burned. But there is also forgiveness and mercy – what has been cut off can be grafted back in again.
Trees are interconnected organisms – the tree needs the leaves and the roots and the trunk in order to survive, and if one part is lost or damaged, the tree will be lost.
And I can’t possibly finish a talk about vines and vineyards without my favourite quote from a very dear saint: “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.” St Thomas Aquinas, OP.