By Ron Hansen
For the month pf October, Journey with Jesus is “Remembering the Reformation: 500 Years” with guest essays from five traditions: Catholic, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox. This week’s essay is by Ron Hansen, a novelist and a permanent deacon for the Catholic Diocese of San Jose.
Although it’s not clear in our English transcription or translation, the reading from Isaiah this Sunday (Isaiah 5:1–7) is introduced as a song. We can imagine a troubadour in the Middle Ages entertaining a village of serfs with such a folk ballad about his friend, the enthusiastic owner of “a fertile hillside,” whose viticulture was faultless, whose spading, stone-clearing, planting, and winepress were unstintingly exact and just what one would expect of a grand cru. But instead, the owner harvests a crop only of wild, bitter grapes, not the cultivated bunches that go into fine wines.
The owner complains, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” In frustration, exasperation, and surrender — a version of our contemporary “I’ve had it!” — he claims he’s going to mow down its hedge, give the land over to grazing, and make his vineyard a ruin of thorns and briars.
The song, or parable, is then explained: the vineyard is “the house of Israel,” the owner is the Lord, and “the people of Judah are his cherished plant.”
There is Hebrew wordplay in the final phrases as God sought judgment (mishpat) and justice (sedaqa) but found instead bloodshed (mispah) and heard only outcry (se’aqah). Meant is a justification of the rights of the poor and a holy people’s cries for the help of the Lord’s pervasive acts of deliverance.
The gospel reading from Matthew (Matt 21:33–43) is a parable that depends on Isaiah’s text and finally becomes an argument against the chief priests and the Pharisees. Jesus tells of a landowner like Isaiah’s friend who converted a plot of earth into a vineyard, surrounded it with a hedge that would forbid theft of the grapes, and constructed a watchtower and a wine press. But the vineyard owner handed over care and supervision to tenants who seize, torture, murder, or stone the servants the landowner sent to collect his produce. Even when the owner sends his son, perhaps naively thinking that he will fare better, the evil tenants kill him, too, hoping in vain to acquire his inheritance.
Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They agree that he will rightly see that the wretched tenants are put to a wretched death and he’ll find other tenants to manage the vineyard. Jesus follows with the warning that stewardship will be withdrawn from those who are rejecting him, that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
Like in Isaiah’s chapter 5, the allegorical aspects to the parable are impossible to miss. The landowner is God, the vineyard is Israel, its leaders are the sharecroppers, the cruelly treated agents of the landowner are the Hebrew prophets, and the slain son is Jesus himself.
Controversy with the Jewish authorities is predominant in Matthew’s chapters 21 to 23, each dispute increasingly prompting the opponents of Jesus to seek his death, just as earlier authorities rejected the prophets. The Matthean community was composed of Jewish Christians, so the parable in this gospel reading ought not be construed as a haughty claim that Judaism would be superceded or replaced by Christianity. Rather, the parable is looking backward to the shameful haranguing of the Old Testament prophets and looking forward to the crucifixion of Jesus, the prophet par excellence.
This month of October the Christian world commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation in Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses, written in Latin, on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Though it was later characterized as a choleric act of rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church, it was in fact standard practice then for theologians to post their ideas in such a way to invite academic conversation and debate.
Luther seems not to have intended a schism with Catholicism, but it became inevitable four years later when he was excommunicated by the hedonistic Pope Leo X, of the affluent Medicis, who on his election as pontiff famously said, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” In his effort to reconstruct St. Peter’s Basilica, he was selling indulgences internationally, the greater the amount offered, the less the time the sinner had to endure in Purgatory.
It was a corrupt practice that seemed to give the pope the governance that was God’s alone, and Luther was right to be offended. But with the rise of Lutheranism as an alternative to Catholicism the floodgates opened and the next centuries found a cascade of alternative denominations: the Reformed founded in Switzerland by Jean Calvin, the Presbyterians in Scotland by John Knox, the Methodists in England by John Wesley, the Anglicans by King Henry VIII, and so on.
A host of sects principally defined themselves by what they were not — papists — and it was not uncommon to look on Catholics as the former, faithless tenants in a vineyard now tended to by good stewards justly serving their master.
At least religiously, we are in far more enlightened and ecumenical times now, and recognize that the vineyard is not a particular sect but Christianity itself. We have far more that unites us than divides us.
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