A landowner who planted a vineyard . . . and went on a journey
Is 5: 1-7
Phil 4: 6-9
Mt 21: 33-43
The Word for Sunday:
On his 21st birthday, I encouraged one of my nephews to try a nice glass of wine. He had already sipped from the chalice at Mass during the reception of Holy Communion so I knew that he had at least tasted this ancient and ever new “fruit of the vine.” But I knew that he had never really taken the time to enjoy the flavors of a fine vintage.
I personally enjoy the reds so I offered him what I thought would be a good example. He took one sip and that was about it. The expression on his face was somewhat surprising and maybe a bit purposely over the top.
I said, “Maybe you need to try a white wine. They’re not as strong.” Still it seems that he will likely never be much of a wine connoisseur. His younger brother, now also 21, had a very different reaction. “Ok, that’s enough!” I thought with him.
The taste of wine is somewhat subjective, I suppose. Depending on your personal likes and dislikes, the food you are eating, and the vintage itself, you enjoy what you enjoy in the end. But, there is no doubt that the vineyards of today compete mightily with each other to produce the finest vintage and taste possible.
Our readings this Sunday once again speak of a vineyard but in more harsh terms than we’ve heard the last two weekends. The prophet Isaiah poetically speaks of a vineyard, carefully tilled and pruned but what the vineyard master hoped for “the crop of grapes” turned out to be “wild grapes.” Maybe that glass of wine I offered to my nephew came from those wild grapes.
Then God speaks an ultimatum: “Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard . . .” God expected that his people would be faithful and produce rich fruit by their loyalty to his covenant. Yet instead God decides to, “take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!” Ouch!
Historically, the city of Jerusalem during the time of Isaiah had been destroyed by the Babylonians so their experience of destruction was interpreted as God’s judgment for their unfaithfulness and idolatry.
Likewise, after the earthly ministry of Jesus was completed and the new Way laid its foundation through the Apostles’ ministry, in the year 70 AD, the city of Jerusalem was once again destroyed by the Romans and along with it the sacred Temple where Jesus himself had preached. The early Jewish converts to the new Christian Way had been expelled from Temple worship and were now left ever more vulnerable and unprotected for rapid persecution. Unlike Judaism, this new sect was not tolerated by the Roman authorities and the legendary persecution of Christians was about to become history.
As the Gospel this Sunday speaks of this vineyard, the chosen people of God, Jesus warns in his story about their well-known abominable treatment of the Old Testament prophets. They “seized” them, they “beat” them, they “stoned” and “killed” them. Yet God continued to attempt a renewal of the covenant as he drew closer to the sending of his own Son. Hoping, according to the story, that at least his son would be respected and treated well. Yet, like the prophets of old, the tenants said: “Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance . . . they threw him out of the vineyard” (Calvary outside the walls) “and killed him.”
But, all is not lost for now God will “lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” (The gentile communities who embrace the faith and the Jewish converts now left on their own.)
Lest we become anti-Semitic, however, remember to whom Jesus was speaking in this story: the “chief priests and elders of the people.” Those self-righteous leaders of the people who rejected Jesus and his message and led the people far from the covenant.
Still, the warning as such is also at the same time a word of mercy. God doesn’t give up. He continues to offer and invite everyone to his vineyard. God has not rejected the Jewish people as a whole. The “Jews” did not kill Jesus with foresight and intent. A race of people cannot be blamed for the sins of others. The Church continues to see them as the first chosen by God. Yet, the expansion of the covenant has come through stages as it were - from one people to many.
What this reminds us about is that we too must not take our faith for granted. The vineyard of our Christian faith is ever as precious as what we hear in Isaiah and Matthew this weekend.
God has supplied the tools we need to remain faithful and to come to know him more and more. The Sacraments of our Church, the richness of our prayer tradition, the call to service especially to those in great need, the support of our brothers and sisters in the faith, our heroes the Saints who plead for us and through whose example we can learn.
What we must provide is a willingness to do what needs to be done to bear good fruit. All is grace as has been said. And indeed God has provided in and through his Church what is needed to be a holy people. Maybe not perfect but a great work in progress for sure.
As Mother Teresa has said, God calls for our faithfulness not our success. How is your vineyard doing? Is the wine a joy to drink or has it gone bad?
Almighty and ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.