Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Vineyard of the Lord

                                    Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

In both today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and the gospel account from Matthew, we hear about a vineyard. In particular, it is a vineyard that is not bearing much fruit. Isaiah makes it clear that the vineyard is a metaphor for the House of Israel.

The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his cherished plant…

Nevertheless, even though all was done to make the vineyard productive, something went wrong. The Lord expected justice and harmony to grow among his people but only found bloodshed and dissension. Jesus was well aware of this passage from Isaiah. Even today’s Psalm, which any good Rabbi would have memorized, echoes the vineyard theme.

In the parable in today’s gospel Jesus refers to tenants who had been put in charge of the landowner’s vineyard. When it was time for the vintage or harvest, the tenants manhandled the landlord’s servants or agents who had come to collect what was due. The greedy tenants, anxious to keep all for themselves, beat, mis-treated, and even killed one of the servants. They even killed the landlord’s son when he was sent to them.

It seems obvious that, like Isaiah, Jesus used the vineyard as a metaphor for the House of Israel. The servants represent the prophets who were often ignored, scorned, and beaten. The son represents Himself who would shortly be arrested, subjected to a mock trial, beaten, and crucified.

Jesus directs this parable to the leaders of the Jews of his time, the chief priests and elders. Perhaps some have used the harsh words of Jesus against the Jewish leaders as an excuse for anti-Semitism or hatred directed against the Jews. I believe that this would be a great mistake. Jesus was a Jew. He was a Rabbi intimately connected with the Jewish people. Jesus was not critical of the Jewish leaders because they were Jews; he was critical of them because they had failed to live as true sons of Abraham. They were not Jewish enough. By their words and deeds they had fallen away from the covenant, and lost sight of their mission.

No one ever accused Isaiah of being anti-Semitic but he castigated his own people severely for their failure to be true to their Jewish beliefs. In the same way, Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders because they had substituted slavish following of rites, rituals, and laws for the true spirit of the Law. Just before this passage Jesus had driven the moneychangers from the Temple because they had profaned his Father’s house.

I believe that whenever we can we should put ourselves in the gospel scene. So, when Jesus is talking to the Jews, we must take his words to heart, not as an indictment of someone else, but as directed to us. We may believe today that we Christians are the heirs of the Kingdom, but we are always in danger of losing it.

Sometimes, we, our families, our friends, and neighbors reject our heritage suddenly and dramatically but more often there is a slow and gradual erosion of faith and commitment. We live in a society that regards Christianity as either irrelevant or pernicious. It is so easy to go along rather than rock the boat. We read the same news, watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, and go to the same movies together.

Holy Scripture is not about some far off time and place. We are the vineyard and the Kingdom has been given to all those who believe whether Jew or Gentile. No one understood this better than St. Paul. In today’s passage from his letter to the community of Philippi he states that by their conversion, they have been given a great gift but that they must be careful to treasure it.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
Whatever is just, whatever is pure,
Whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
If there is any excellence
And if there is anything worthy of praise,
Think about these things.

Isn’t this the life we want? A life of truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, and graciousness. Why would we exchange it for lies, dishonor, injustice, impurity, and ugliness? None of these things will bring us real happiness and peace.

Paul urges the Philippians and us to keep on working in the vineyard.

Keep on doing what you have learned and received
And heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.


Reading 1. Isaiah 5:1-7
Reading II. Philippians 4:6-9
Gospel. Matthew 21: 33-43 (the stone that the builders rejected)

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