The song of the vineyard, it is thought, was composed by the prophet Isaiah during the early part of his ministry and was sung at vintage festivals. Only the last stanza equates the vineyard allegorically with Israel, thus turning a happy little song about country life into an expression of God’s judgment upon his people.
This represents a clever turn on the part of the singer, who has engaged the attention and approval of his hearers up to this point. The parables of Jesus are clearly in the same tradition.
Why this reading was chosen for today is obvious (see the Gospel).
As in Isaiah 5 and other passages in the Old Testament, the vine appears in this psalm as a symbol for Israel. The psalm, however, is not used for purposes of denunciation but as a prayer for deliverance.
According to the partition theory (see our comments for the twenty-fifth Sunday), Phil 4:6-7 form the conclusion of Letter B, Phil 4:8-9 the conclusion of Letter C. This would explain the sudden shift from a blessing to a final exhortation (one would expect these to be in the reverse order at the end of a letter).
It further eases the position of the word “finally” some fifteen verses before the actual end of the present “letter” (of course, we all know preachers who go on for fifteen minutes after saying “finally,” but Paul was probably not among their number, at least on this occasion!). It also explains why Paul seemingly repeats himself in Phil 4:7, 9 (“peace of God,” “God of peace”).
The partition theory also enhances the understanding of the two paragraphs in our pericope. The first paragraph comes at the end of the thank-you note for the help Paul has received from the Philippians. The exhortation may be a reassurance in view of the possible arrival of false teachers at Philippi. Phil 4:7 will be the concluding blessing. Phil 4:8-9 will have followed originally upon Phil 4:3.
Paul has been denouncing the false teachers who have by now arrived in Philippi (Phil 3:2-21). They were probably some kind of enthusiasts who believed that they were already in heaven and had attained perfection, ignoring the “not-yet-ness” of Christian existence, and who did not take seriously the place of the Cross in Christian life. Like the opponents in Galatia, they may have demanded the circumcision of Gentile Christian converts (see “their glory is in their shame”—Phil 3:19).
In a final exhortation Paul seeks to direct his readers to higher things. In order to do so, he draws upon the ethical teaching of Stoicism: things true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent (virtuous), worthy of praise—all these are the categories of Stoic ethics; there is nothing distinctively Christian about them. But, in Paul’s thinking, they are none the worse for that.
Finally, the Apostle reiterates what he said in Phil 3:17, though in somewhat different words, holding himself up as an example for his converts to imitate. At first sight, this idea looks rather embarrassing, even contrary to Paul’s repudiation of justification by works. But Paul understands his life as an apostle, especially his sufferings, to be a manifestation of the Cross of Christ.
Therefore, in asking the Philippians to imitate him, he is not asking them to copy his good works but inviting them to pattern their lives on Christ as he is made manifest in his (Paul’s) apostolic existence. This interpretation is borne out by what Paul says about himself in Phil 3:12-16, where he disclaims any notion that he has already achieved ethical perfection.
In Matthew (and Mark, the source Matthew follows here), the parable of the vineyard is heavily allegorized. Luke and the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas contain traces of an earlier form of this parable that is shorter and less allegorized. In this earlier form, there are no echoes of Isaiah 5 in the opening of the parable (Mt 21:33). The emissaries prior to the son are reduced to two or three single ones, without any suggestion that they are identified with the Old Testament prophets. The christological upgrading of the son is missing, and the parable must have concluded with his murder.
For the original meaning, we have to ignore all the secondary allegorical features and consider the story by itself. As in the Lucan parables of the unjust steward and the unjust judge, Jesus draws a surprising lesson from an utterly discreditable piece of human behavior. See, he says, how these vinedressers stopped at nothing. They even murdered the heir to get hold of the vineyard. You must be just as resolute in laying hold of the kingdom of God!
It was all too easy for the church to allegorize this parable. The vineyard became Israel; the vinedressers, its religious leaders; the successive emissaries, the Old Testament prophets; the son, Jesus the Messiah; his murder, the crucifixion. This interpretation was then clinched by combining with it the testimonium from Psalm 118:22-23, so that the parable closes with Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew goes further and adds Mt 21:43, so that it closes with the prediction of the mission to the Gentiles following Israel’s rejection of the gospel. All this is not wrong; it is simply the constant reapplication of the parable to new situations in the community’s life.