Sometimes writing a homily is difficult. But at rare moments, hints are thrown at you from all sorts of different places and the homily basically writes itself.
This time it was the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, and the Gospel passage associated with it, of the wicked tenants who kill the vineyard owner’s son (Matthew 21). I thought to myself, didn’t Pope Benedict write something about this? He’s usually pretty good at contextualizing the parables and explaining how Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to let down their guard and join Him in his new creation.
Indeed the Pope wrote about this Gospel, and the Isaiah passage and even Psalm 80 in connection with it. Surprisingly, it can be found in the chapter on the principal images of the Gospel of John (Jesus of Nazareth I, ch. 8), under the heading ‘Vine and Wine’. Pope Benedict considers the Isaiah passage foundational for the vine motif, and writes:
The Prophet probably sang it in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, in the context of the cheerful atmosphere characteristic of this eight-day feast (cf. Deut 16:14). […]
Everyone knew that “vineyard” was an image for a bride (cf. Song 2:15, 7:12f.), so they were expecting some entertainment suited to the festive atmosphere.
Many more interesting and edifying things were said about the passage, but this information made me see the whole passage in a different light. If it was a love song, then the translation on the USCCB website ‘Let me now sing of my friend, my friend’s song concerning his vineyard’ was misleading. So I decided to take out a Hebrew-English Old Testament and see if I could make some sense of it, despite the fact that my Hebrew knowledge is sorely limited.
The first thing that stood out was that the song starts out very sing-song-y, which is recognizable as soon as you can read the Hebrew alphabet:
’āshīrāh nā līdīdī
shīrat dōdī l’kharmō
Li-di-di, it is as airy and light-hearted as fa-la-la. It means ‘for my beloved’ and is related to dōdī (translated as ‘of my lover’).
The word is used twice, for the text continues:
kerem hāyāh līdīdī
(‘My beloved had a vineyard’, or more literally ‘A vineyard was there for my beloved’: a possessive dative. And then, ‘On a very fertile hill’. ‘Vineyard’ and ‘hill’ are very similar words: kerem and qeren.)
Next I wanted to know if there was a similar play in the lines ‘He hoped it would yield grapes. Instead, it yielded wild grapes.’ In this I was disappointed:
wayqaw la‘asōt ‘anāvīm
Yes, it rhymes, but that is only because -īm is the regular masculine plural ending. Nothing surprising there.
But wait…what was it that the man of the winepress was looking for? Grapes? Then why did it sound like something else? The word ‘anāvīm looked strangely familiar, and would look familiar to any amateur theologian worth three miserable grains of salt. There are some words that are known even to your average American Catholic blogger (no offense), and one of them is anawim, the ‘poor’ for whom poverty is a spiritual attitude. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, the anawim. And indeed the word is almost identical in spelling to ‘anāvīm: ענבים and ענוים.
The almost-double meaning of ‘grapes’ is the first hint of the revelation in verse 7: ‘The vineyard of the LORD of Hosts is the House of Israel’.
Now I wanted to know if something similar applied to b’ushīm, the ‘wild grapes’. And while I could not find a similar word, I chanced upon the commentary in E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible, which told me two things:
(1) The word b’ushīm was derived from bashash [Strong suggests it’s actually ba’ash], meaning ‘to stink’ – which can easily shade into an aesthetic, ritual, or ethical judgment (in any language).
(2) Isaiah 5 is the only place in the Old Testament where qeren is translated ‘hillside’; all the other seventy-five times it means ‘horn’.
Wait, what? What did the text say again?
kerem hāyāh līdīdī
‘My best friend had a “vineyard”
On a really fertile “horn” ’
They were expecting some entertainment suited to the festive atmosphere.