THE 27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 02, 2011

Isaiah 5:1-7

Philippians 4:6-9

Matthew 21:33-43

The link between the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah and the reading from Matthew’s Gospel is obvious.  The dominant image in both is The Vineyard.  As obvious as is the connection, we must be careful about the conclusions we draw from the joined readings.  It is important that we place ourselves in the readings, hear them addressed to us, and then see how we interpret them.  I’ll bet the judgment implied in each softens immediately.

Isaiah’s song about his friend’s vineyard sings of disappointment.  All the precautions had been taken.  The Friend (God) built the protective surrounding wall around the choicest vines he had planted in the richest soil.  Guards were assigned to fend off marauders.  The winepress awaited the lush crop that should have resulted.  The Friend had done everything right.  The result?  The yield was wild grapes, sour, good for nothing.  The heartbroken Friend intends to abandon the vineyard, tear down the walls surrounding it and let the wild boars graze there.

Perhaps the prophet saw the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the people, those chosen ones God had led out of slavery.  To them God gave the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  God’s name was entrusted to them.  All they had to do was to live as God’s people and let God be their god.  That meant living in relationship with God, observing the Law that would spell out a lifestyle that would make all other people marvel.  No other people had a relationship with their gods as Israel had with Yahweh.  Certainly Israel would have nothing to do with pagan ways.  Wouldn’t you think that should have been obvious?

Alas.  Now Israel is compromised and the result is a weakened people.  In the telling of the story, Isaiah had the clear advantage of hindsight.  He knew their history and that when Israel was most faithful in keeping God’s ways they were strongest.  Their infidelity weakened them, leaving them vulnerable, able to be conquered, enslaved and led off into captivity.  They had become wild grapes, not the choice crop God had expected.

It would be easy to conclude from the prophecy that God had abandoned Israel and given up on this people once called Chosen.  There are those anti-Semites and Arians who would endorse that interpretation and have used it to justify depriving the Jews of their human rights and dignity at various times in the Christian era.  They forget that God is a faithful god.  Even if the people wandered after strange gods and took up pagan behaviors, God’s love endured.  The Babylonian Captivity ended and Israel returned home to Jerusalem rejoicing.  The Jews will always be the Chosen People of God.  John Paul II’s prayer of apology and atonement for abuses inflicted on Jewish people by the Church attested to that conviction.  Benedict XVI continues the atonement in ever thawing relationships with the Jewish people.  Some critics have said that of late Benedict has faltered in this regard, however.  The restoration of the Tridentine Good Friday Liturgy with its prayers offensive to the Jewish people is a case in point.

Now we consider the parable of the Vineyard that Jesus tells in this week’s gospel.  This time it isn’t the grapes that go bad.  This time the tenants forget they are tenants to whom the vineyard has been entrusted.  The Landowner (God) expects that the tenants will turn over the luscious grapes to him at harvest time.  With mounting hostility the tenants reject the successive servants who come to obtain the produce – one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.  Again, he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way.  And again we see in the rich imagery Israel’s history.  The Landowner’s servants are the prophets sent to speak God’s word to the people.  What should have been the result of each prophecy?  Change of heart.  A welcoming of the word.  Repentance.  The fate of the prophets often times was to be beaten, stoned, and killed.

The landowner, as a last resort, and with confidence that the emissary will be received with reverence and respect, sends his son.  But they beat him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.  We see Jesus, scourged, crowned with thorns, and led outside the walls of Jerusalem to be crucified.  The parable becomes Jesus’ prediction of his impending suffering and death.

Perhaps the Gospel writer composed this parable following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  People could look on that event and interpret it as God’s judgment upon the Jews.  The relationship between Jewish Christians and their ancestors in faith had become increasingly strained.  The Christians were considered a heretical sect and were being thrown out of the synagogues.  Some were being arrested and punished for following The New Way.  Again, among the growing numbers of Christians, the interpretation could flourish that God had rejected the Jews and put those wretched men to a wretched death.  Once again, there is no shortage of people who would endorse that interpretation.

It is authentic Church teaching that Israel and the Jewish people are God’s chosen people for all time and eternity.  The Church did not supplant Israel to become the new chosen people.  Ours is a favor by adoption.  Jesus fulfilled Israel’s vocation of fidelity to God’s will.  We share in that fulfillment through our Baptism.  We are the adopted children of God through our identity with Jesus Christ.  Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, himself a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, condemned the idea of God’s rejection of the Jews.  And so must we.

Then what are we to take from this parable?  Most obviously, it seem to me, we ought to be sure that we do not act like the tenants in Matthew’s parable, much less become the wild grapes in Isaiah’s prophetic message.  We must banish anything of anti-Semitism from us.  Alas, that should go without saying.

There is no acceptable excuse for not being what we are called to be.  All we have to do is be open to the Word and let the Spirit empower us to hear it and take it to heart.  There is no acceptable excuse for not living the Priesthood of the Baptized.  There is no acceptable excuse for living other than as God’s children, holy and beloved.  All we have to do is journey from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist and let the Spirit transform us into Eucharistic people, that is, people who constantly give thanks to God through Christ Jesus, our Lord, for the favor that is our in Christ.  All we have to do is live what we celebrate and be Bread broken and Cup poured out.

Paul sums it up for us in his directive in the second reading.  Forgive me if I tax your patience by quoting it here in its entirety.

Brothers and sister:

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,

By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,

Make your requests known to God.

Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding

Will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

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.

Keep on doing what you have learned and received

And heard and seen in me.

Then the God of peace will be with you.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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