A Parable about Caring for Creation – Dennis Ormseth reflects on being grounded in the earth.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023, 2026)
The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost remind us that, according to God’s purpose, the life of God’s people is securely grounded in the earth. Our first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all have in common a key metaphor that brings this home, the metaphor of the vineyard:
“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;” (Isaiah 5:1-7).
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (Psalm 80:8-9).
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. . .” (Matthew 21:33-34).
In Walter Brueggemann’s judgment, the Song of the Vineyard in our first lesson is the “paradigmatic use of the metaphor in the Old Testament.” And the Parable of Matthew 21:33-41 is correspondingly “the most extended and complex usage of the imagery in the New Testament” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 257). In the commentary for these lessons, we explore the significance of this metaphor for our call to care for creation.
God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.
We have encountered the metaphor of the vineyard before in our reading of the selections from the Gospel of Matthew, most recently with the texts for Lectionary 25, with the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard.” There we pictured a God who cares passionately about his vineyard and is pleased to call laborer after laborer to the good work of caring for it. As the landowner explains to the laborers who criticize the equal pay they received for unequal time spent at labor, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” As we suggested, God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing. While both Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and Matthew’s rendering of the parable of “the wicked tenants’ evoke this same level of concern for the vineyard, these narratives also draw the reader into the deep anguish of God over what happens to the vineyard, when its inhabitants refuse to engage in their work in a righteous manner.
God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.
In Isaiah’s narrative, God is envisioned, not as the manager of the vineyard but as its “Gardener-Vinedresser,” an image which links the narrative to the garden in the story of creation in Genesis 2, and as Brueggemann suggests, “connotes fruitfulness and the full function of creation (Num 24:6).” As the use of the metaphor in the accompanying Psalm 80 makes explicit, the image also links the story to the narrative of the Exodus, as it was expressed already in Exodus 15:17: “You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established” (Brueggemann, p. 255). God’s investment in the vineyard is made absolutely clear in the detailed accounting of the planting. The digging, the clearing of stones, the selection of choice vines, and the building of a watchtower all provide detailed substance for the claim reflected in the anguished question of v. 4a: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”
The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.
The gardener’s expectations are high: the vat for the wine has been hewn out and is ready to receive the fruit. The gardener’s disappointment is equally great: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:4b). And his action is correspondingly astonishing. With no thought to trying another variety in another season (the standard modern gardener’s perennial response to a disappointing crop), the gardener resolves to destroy the whole vineyard:
“I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (Isaiah 5:5b-6).
So serious for the gardener is this failure to produce good fruit. The gardener’s response goes beyond the passionate concern that the vineyard be well tended; he is angry enough to bring to bear the full weight of both enemy armies and cosmic forces against the vineyard and its occupants, an anger that is sustained, in the prophet’s telling, until “the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust” (Isaiah 5:24a). Why so great and consuming anger? “For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 5:24b).
Brueggemann notes that the metaphor of the gardener-vinedresser is what he calls a “metaphor of sustenance,” contrasted with “metaphors of governance,” according to which God is imaged as “one who nurtures, evokes, values, and enhances life,” as opposed to the concern “to maintain a viable order in which life is possible for Israel and for all of creation” (Brueggemann, p. 250). But it seems then that there is a certain unexpected wildness about this gardener. The vine and the vineyard together are destroyed in his cataclysmic fury! What are we to make of this?
Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.
That the Song of the Vineyard has reference to the experience of the people of Israel in exile is obvious, of course; and the agenda of the prophet concerns not gardening but the lack of political and economic justice on the part of the leadership. The sour grapes that so anger the gardener are the unjust and uncaring actions of those leaders. As Brueggemann observes, the metaphor of the gardener and his garden or vineyard is:
“able to express both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in time of displacement. In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine” (Brueggemann, p. 257).
But the metaphor guarantees that the fate of the vineyard cannot be separated from that of the vine. The vine and the vineyard are of one piece; people and land are caught up together in the destruction that the leaders of the people have brought upon them all. It comes, surely, of the deep rootedness of the people in the land, a rootedness that perhaps only a gardener who has dug soil, cleared stones, and planted with expensive “choice vines” can fully appreciate.
Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.
Contemporary readers concerned with care of creation might see in this a warning that social justice and environmental concern are inseparably linked, however remote the connections may appear to be on the surface. This would suggest, at the least, that neither social justice nor environmental restoration should be pursued in isolation from or at the expense of the other; eventually the linkage will make itself manifest. We might also be struck by the fact that the vineyard, once so carefully tended by God, is, as it were, to be turned back into wasteland or wilderness. No wall shuts out wild animals; no knife or hoe disturbs whatever grows there; and it matters not that drought parches the land. There is an ironic sense of justice to this: after all the care God extended, the vineyard yield’s only wild grapes. And so the land is returned to wilderness. It was Thoreau who famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and the idea is perhaps no more prophetic than it is apt as a basis for setting aside tracts of land called “wilderness.” The wildness that haunts our culture’s disregard of calls for social and eco-justice pertains to energies that are far more comprehensive and threatening than anything that can be designated as a preserve. Such ideas need to be used carefully, of course, as has been demonstrated lately by the claims of politicians to know just exactly what “sins” are responsible for the environmental “wildness” we are experiencing globally in recent times. They seldom seem to have in mind acts of injustice that involve our relationship to the Earth. But the return of the land to wildness as envisioned here echoes themes from the story of Noah; and there is perhaps a sense that land degraded by human misuse needs to “go wild” and be devoid of human habitation before it is ready to be inhabited once again in the expectation of good fruit.
Does Jesus see the significance of the metaphor of the vineyard similarly? Brueggemann calls attention to the fact that in Matthew 21:33-41, the image is again “potentially positive toward Israel and a witness to Yahweh’s attentive generosity” but is “utilized as an assertion of judgment: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matthew 21:41). But there are interesting and perhaps significant differences in the details, as well. First of all, the gardener has become an absentee landowner, who lets out his vineyard to tenants. This social and economic distance opens up the possibility for people to have an impersonal financial interest in the vineyard; and the actions of the tenants seem to confirm this as part of Jesus’ understanding. They do not have the investment in the vineyard that the gardener does; they are not concerned about producing good fruits as much as they are concerned to gain control over the property, even though they acknowledge that it is another’s “heritage” they covet. Indeed, they both dishonor the owner and ignore whatever purposes he might have for the vineyard.
Warren Carter argues that the parable “utilizes a struggle over land and resources to raise questions about ownership and just use” as part of salvation history. Thus the parable:
“evokes a dominant economic practice of the Greco-Roman world where high rents, civic and religious taxes, acquiring seed and feed for the next crop and for livestock, and the need to trade or barter for other goods not produced on a farm, made subsistence existence difficult for many. The religious elite as tenants experience not only the desperation many experienced, but the desperation they helped to cause” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 427).
Especially telling is their treatment of the son and heir; in killing him they destroy any possibility of the son taking charge of the vineyard and restoring it in accordance with the landowner’s purposes. The linkage between owner, people, and land implicit in the metaphor of the vineyard but weakened in the commercial transaction of renting, is thus willfully broken. The consequence again seems quite astonishing, if at the outset we assume that the landowner represents God. In Carter’s view, the “vineyard remains intact, owned by its owner. It is the tenants who are punished by losing their position as its caretakers,” a punishment which, Carter suggests, is “understood to happen in Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome in 70 C.E.” (Carter, p. 429).
We learn the fate of the land owners, but what about the fate of the vineyard?
This conclusion seems strange in the mouth of Jesus. And Bernard Brandon Scott is less certain about the fate of the vineyard. The threat of displacement is, after all, first voiced by the authorities, for whom this is an entirely ordinary way of thinking. With allusions to the patriarchal stories of Joseph, however, and to the conflict over inheritance classically represented by the story of Esau and Jacob, the fact that the parable “provides no ready identification models, no clear metaphorical referencing, an audience is left in a precarious position: In the plot, the kingdom fails and the inheritance is in doubt.” Even worse, the parable seems to recall Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven is breaking out by violence and violent men are raping it.” The “kingdom is an object of violence. The owner is a fool, the tenants are bandits, and the messengers are beaten or murdered. . . [The] parable challenges the predictability of the kingdom’s heirs as good and the apocalyptic assumption that the kingdom’s true heirs will in the end triumph. In the parable, the final fate of the vineyard is unresolved because the owner is still alive, but no evidence is given for its eventual liberation. The owner’s fate may be that of his son.” (Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 252-53.)
Following this line of interpretation leads inevitably to the question whether Jesus (or Matthew) intends to prefigure Jesus’ death in the telling of the parable in the face of his opponents, who are in fact the party that will be responsible for his death. For reading of the parable in Christian worship, this identification seems inescapable. The one who first enters our company at worship appears in the narrative of the Psalm as “one at your right hand,” on whom the hand of God will rest, “the one whom you made strong for yourself” and then reappears here as the son sent by the father from a far country. And so the fate of the vineyard is made to lie in the same grave as the son, awaiting some great reversal at the end of the story.
The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!
Again we can ask, what does all this mean for care of creation? Carter comes close to what we think it means when he writes that this parable of the vineyard “repeats the condemnation of the religious leaders by depicting the fateful consequences of their persistent rejection of God’s purposes, especially in Jesus the son. They are rejected as caretakers of the vineyard. It identifies another group to take over the role of the displaced leaders as God’s agents to ensure the fruitfulness of the vineyard Israel” (Carter, p. 426).
Finding good caretakers for the vineyard is what this is about. However, as we have seen above, people and vineyard are not that easily separated. Or to put it differently, they are only separated so easily in the covetous minds of the thieving tenants and in the coveting minds of those incensed authorities who proclaim that the tenants should be replaced! But the ambiguity of the parable suggests another reason to resist Carter’s conclusion and to close the gap of the imagination with this:
The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.
If the landowner is God the creator and Jesus his beloved son, then the Vineyard is not simply the limited space of Israel but extends to the whole creation that God loves. And the new tenants are those who will care for that vineyard as the passionate gardener would care for it, or indeed as his son will, when he returns from the wildness beyond the broken walls to reclaim his heritage and restore both the vine and all others, with their vineyard, their proper places in the Earth. Isn’t this very likely what Jesus’ anticipated in saying, “the kingdom of God will be . . . given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43)?
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.