TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 08, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 5:1-7
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 4:6-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:33-43

What links the first read from the Prophet Isaiah and the reading from Matthew’s Gospel should be clear.  The presenting image in both is The Vineyard.  As obvious as is the connection, we must be careful about the conclusions we draw.  We must 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 precautions had been taken.  The friend (God) built the protective surrounding wall around the choicest vines he had planted in the richest soil.  Guards watched to fend off marauders.  The winepress awaited the expected lush crop.  The friend had done everything right.  The result” Wild grapes, sour and worthless.  The heartbroken friend intends to abandon the vineyard, tear down the wall and let the boars graze there.

The Prophet sings to a weakened, unobservant people.  This same people, the chosen ones, the vineyard, God lead out of slavery and gave them the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  God entrusted his name to them.  All the people had to do was be God’s people and let God be their God.  That meant to live in relationship with God, to observe 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 YHWH.  Certainly Israel would have nothing to do with pagan ways.  Shouldn’t that have been obvious?

Ah, but now Israel is compromised, the result, a weakened people.  If the people heard the Prophet, they could have an opportunity for clear hindsight.  When they had been faithful they were strong.  Their infidelity weakened them and left them vulnerable, able to be conquered and enslaved.  The Babylonian Captivity could be God’s judgment on their faithlessness.  They had become wild grapes.

It would be easy to conclude from the prophecy that God would abandon Israel and give up on this people once called Chosen.   There are those who would endorse that interpretation.  But YHWH is a faithful God.  Even if the people wander away, God’s love remains.  When the Babylonian Captivity ended and Israel returned home to Jerusalem, they rejoiced.   They heard the Prophet, recognized their shortcomings and repented.

The Jews will always be the Chosen People of God.  St. John Paul II’s prayer of apology and atonement for abuses inflicted by the Church on the Jewish people attested to that conviction.  Pope Francis condemns anti-Semitism and reaches out to the Jewish people, openly boasting of close friendships with a Rabbi.

What we need to heed in Isaiah’s Song is the call to repentance.

There is a bit of a different slant to the Vineyard parable that Jesus tells in this week’s Gospel.  This time, it isn’t the grapes that go bad.  This time the tenants forget that they are tenants.  The landowner entrusts the vineyard to them, expecting that they yield will be turned over to him when harvest time comes.  With mounting hostility, the tenants reject the successive servants who come to collect 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.  We see in the rich imagery Israel’s history.  The landowner’s servants are the prophets sent to proclaim 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, beaten, crowned with thorns, led outside the walls of Jerusalem, and crucified.  The parable is Jesus’ prediction of his impending suffering and death.

Perhaps the Gospel writer composed this parable following the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  People could look on that event and interpret it as God’s judgment.  The relationship between Jewish Christians and their ancestors in faith had become increasingly strained.  They were considered to be a heretical sect and were being thrown out of the synagogues.  Some were being arrested and punished for following the New Way.  The growing numbers of Christians witnessing the Fall of Jerusalem could interpret that vent as sign that God had rejected the Jews and put those wretched men to a wretched death.  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 into Christ.  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 the parable?  Most obviously, 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 proclamation.  There is no acceptable excuse for not being what we are called to be.  There is no acceptable excuse for living other than as God’s children, holy and beloved.  That is why we are a Eucharistic people who renew the Lord’s dying and rising, giving thanks to God for the favor that is ours in Christ.  Paul sums it up for us in his directive in the second reading.  Forgive me if I quote it here in its entirety.

Brothers and sisters,

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/ 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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