2014-10-03 10:18:00

27th Sunday of the Year

Is 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43  


In 1978 a man travelled to Cincinnati to attend the funeral of Max Ellerbusch. Max had been like a father to this man for twenty years. Nothing unusual, except that as a 15-year-old this man had taken his mother’s car and struck and killed Max’s 5-year-old son. This was a week before Christmas in 1958. Soon after the accident, a surprised court heard Max ask that charges be dropped. Instead he wanted to give the death-car driver a job and help toward his education. Max did all that and more, virtually adopting the 15-year-old boy into his family. Max shared his home, time and understanding with the troubled youth. We might wonder, “How could Max do that? I could never befriend a wild teenager who had just killed my 5-year-old son. Max must have been a little crazy to go out of his way that much to become like a father for that boy.” But if Max Ellerbusch was a little crazy, so is God. The parable in today’s Gospel describes God as a landowner who prepared a beautiful vineyard and gave it to His people to tend. However, His people wanted not just their share of the harvest, but the whole thing. They even abused and killed the prophets God sent to help them. Finally, in a desperate attempt to save His vineyard and His people, God sent His own Son, hoping they would respect and honour Him. Nonetheless, they abused and killed Him too in an effort to seize His inheritance. “What a silly story,” we might say. “No landowner in his right mind would risk sending his own son among rebels who had already murdered his messengers. How crazy can you get? Who can believe in a God so dumb?’ But that is precisely the point of the parable. Where we would cry for vengeance on the tenants, God chose an alternative – the alternative of unconditional love.

The common theme of today’s readings is the necessity of bearing fruit in the Christian life and the consequent punishment for spiritual sterility, ingratitude and wickedness.  In today’s first reading, which is called “Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard,” the prophet describes God's care of, and expectations for, His Chosen People.  God’s chosen people have failed to bear fruit in spite of the blessings lavished upon them by a loving and forgiving God.  Further, they have been poor tenants in the Lord's vineyard.  Hence, God laments: "I expected my vineyard to yield good grapes. Why did it yield sour ones instead?"  In the responsorial psalm, the psalmist pleads with God to look down from Heaven and to "take care of this vine," knowing that if any good is to come of the vine, it will be God's doing and not the people's.  In the second reading, Paul tells Philippians about the high expectations he has for them, reminding them that they need to become fruit-producing Christians, by praying and giving thanks and by practicing justice, purity and graciousness in their lives.  Giving a theological explanation of Israel’s history of gross ingratitude through a parable, Jesus, in today’s Gospel, reminds us Christians that since we are the "new" Israel, enriched with additional blessings and provisions in the Church, we are expected to show our gratitude to God by bearing fruits of the kingdom, fruits of the Holy Spirit, in our lives.  

The first reading (Isaiah 5:1-7): By the late eighth century BC, God's people in the Promised Land had become divided into a Northern Kingdom, Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and a Southern Kingdom, Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem.  Assyria was the dominant power in the region, and it controlled the Northern Kingdom.  Isaiah assured both Kingdoms that a new King would come to the throne in Judah and would see to the reunion of the North and the South and the expulsion of the Assyrians. But in the earlier chapters of his prophecy, the prophet had criticized his own unfaithful people.  In today’s first reading, which is called Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, the prophet describes God's care for, and interest in, His Chosen People.  "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?"  Yahweh asked.  Following the classic Biblical imagery, Isaiah describes Israel as a non-productive vineyard.   Though God has done everything necessary to produce a good crop, the vineyard yields only "wild grapes."

From the call of Abraham (about 1800 B.C.), and especially after the Exodus (1300 B.C.), the history of God’s chosen people was one continuous reminder of God's benevolence towards them.  But Israel — God's vineyard – failed Him miserably, producing wild and bitter grapes.  Israel disobeyed Him by perpetuating injustice and shedding the blood of the innocent.  We are reminded that the same God of love and benevolence has shown even more love and benevolence to His new ‘chosen people’-- the Church.  He sent His prophets to reveal Himself and His message to the Jews, but He has sent His own Divine Son to live and die among us.  By Baptism, which Jesus instituted, we are made the children of God and heirs of Heaven. But by our cold indifference to God and our excessive attachment to worldly goods, many of us remain more ungrateful than the Israelites.  Thus, we, too, are the unproductive vineyard the Heavenly Father says He will destroy, laying it waste.  Let us pay attention to this strong warning and become His grateful and generous children.

The second reading (Philippians 4:6-9): Since the Christians at Philippi have received the Gospel enthusiastically and have continued to support Paul after he has evangelized them, Paul tells them affectionately of the high expectations he has for them and shows them how they are to become fruit-producing Christians.  Using the Greek moralist phrases, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious," Paul instructs them to derive the true peace of God by “prayer and  petition with thanksgiving” and to “keep on doing what they have learned and received and heard and seen" in him.  Paul’s words of instruction as to how the Philippians should be fruit-bearing vines are equally applicable to us.  We, too, must grow in our relationship to God through prayers of adoration and thanksgiving.  These should be followed by prayers of petition in which we ask for spiritual and temporal favors.  Paul assures us, too, that such prayers will bring peace of mind in this life and eternal peace and happiness in the life to come.

Exegesis: The context and the objective: The parable of the wicked tenants is actually an allegory told by Jesus during Passover week in the Temple precincts of Jerusalem.  A parable normally presents one lesson and the details are not relevant.  In an allegory, on the other hand, each detail has a symbolic meaning.  This story is one of the three “parables of judgment” which Jesus told in response to the question put forward by the Scribes and the Pharisees about his authority to teach in the Temple.  It was intended to be a strong warning to the Jews in general and to the Scribes and the Pharisees in particular, as they were planning to kill Jesus, the Messiah for whom Israel had waited for centuries.  Thus, this parable of the wicked tenants is a theological summary of the entire history of the ingratitude, infidelity and hard-heartedness of the Chosen People.   Its importance is shown by its appearance in all the three Synoptic gospels.

The background of the parable: The parable reflects the frictions in tenant- landlord relations in Palestine.  Most of the vineyards were owned by rich, absentee landlords living in Jerusalem, Damascus or Rome who leased their lands to tenants and were interested only in collecting rent.  The country was seething with economic unrest.  The working people were discontented and rebellious, and the tenant farmers had picked up the revolutionary slogan, “land for the farmer.”  Hence, they often refused to pay the rent previously agreed upon and in some cases assaulted the landowner’s representatives.  It is natural, then, that Jesus’ parable should reflect the popular hatred of foreign domination and the monopolizing of agricultural land by a rich minority who supported Roman rule.

The Old Testament roots of the parable. The New Jerusalem Bible says of the vineyard image: “The theme of Israel as a vine, chosen and then rejected, had been introduced by Hosea, 10:1, and was to be taken up by Jeremiah, 2:21; 5:10; 6:9; 12:10, and Ezekiel, 15:1-8; 17:3-10; 19:10-14; cf. Ps 80:8-18; and Is 27:2-5.  Jesus gave it a new twist in the parable of the wicked husbandmen in Mt 21:33-44 and parallel gospel passages.  In John 15:1-2 Jesus unfolds the mystery of the 'true' vine.  Other aspects of the vine theme appear in Dt 32:32-33 and [Sirach] 24:17.” This powerful prophetic allegory was so well-known that Jesus' Jewish audience immediately understood that He was talking about them in the parable.  But Jesus makes changes in Isaiah's imagery.  He makes Himself the vineyard owner’s son and adds the concept of "tenant-farmers."  Here, instead of Yahweh destroying the wild vines, Jesus' owner, according to the judgment of the  audience whom Jesus asked for a judgment, "will bring that wicked crowd to a bad end and leases the vineyard to others who see to it that he has grapes at vintage time."  In this parable, the ungrateful and murderous tenants are the uncooperative vines of Isaiah.  Jesus then turns the crowd's stern verdict calling for rejection and destruction against themselves through a telling quotation of Psalm 118, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

The meaning of the parable: As an allegory, this parable has different meanings.  1) Like the Jews, the second- and third-generation Christians also understood God as the landlord.  The servants sent by the landowner represented the prophets of the Old Testament.  They were to see to it that God’s Chosen People produced fruits of justice, love and righteousness.  But the people refused to listen to the prophets and produced the bitter grapes of injustice, immorality and idolatry.  They persecuted and killed the prophets.  (See 1 Kings 19:10, 14; 2 Chron 24:18-22; 36:15-16; Acts 7:51-53; Matt 23:29-39).  As a final attempt, the landowner sent his son, (Jesus), to collect the rent (fruits of righteousness), from the wicked tenants (the Jews).  But they crucified him and continued to lead a life of disloyalty and disobedience.  Hence, God’s vineyard was taken away from His chosen people and was given to a people (Gentile Christians), who were expected to produce fruit of righteousness.  

2) The Lord’s vineyard at present is the Church, and we Christians are the tenants from whom God expects fruits of righteousness.  The parable warns us that if we refuse to reform our lives, to become productive, we, too, could be replaced as the old Israel was replaced by the "new" Israel.  We cease being either God's vineyard or the tenants of God's vineyard when we stop relating to others as loving servants. In the parable, the rent the tenants refuse to pay stands for the relationship with God and with all the people of Israel which the religious leaders refuse to cultivate. This means that before anything else, God checks on how well we are fulfilling our responsibilities to each other as children of God.  The parable teaches that instead of glorying in our privileges and Christian heritage, we are called to deeds of love, including bearing personal and corporate witness that invites others into God's kingdom.

The parable also challenges us to ask the question: how do we treat the prophets of our time?  Over the centuries, how many prophets in our Christian communities have been rejected, abused and even killed?  How did we treat Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Oliver Plunkett and, in our own times, Bishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, the countless victims of violence in Africa, Central and South America -- not to mention Northern Ireland.  The sad fact is that they were killed not by pagans but by fellow-Christians, tenants in the Lord's vineyard.

The second image: An application of Psalm 118: 22-23 introduces a second image at the end of the parable: the Church, the interim expression of the final-age Kingdom, as a building made of stone whose cornerstone is Jesus.  This image has its Old Testament roots in Isaiah 8:14-15 and Daniel 2:34, 44-45.  That Jesus is "head of the corner" affirms his essential role in the salvation of God's people.  He is the cornerstone, placed at the corner of the foundation where two rows of stones come together, and also the keystone or capstone completing the arch and supporting the entire structure.  Verse 44 is reminiscent of the comment, "You can't break God's laws; you can only break yourself on them," which is rather like saying, "You can't break the law of gravity; you can only break yourself by ignoring it."  People in every age have the option of accepting or rejecting Jesus. If we accept Jesus and his Church as the cornerstone of our lives, He becomes a sure foundation.  If we reject him, we are the losers.  Hence, let us build our lives on Jesus Christ, the cornerstone.

Life messages: 1) Are we good fruit-producers in the vineyard of the Church?  Jesus has given the Church everything necessary to make Christians fruit-bearing.  i) The Bible to know the will of God.  ii) The priesthood to lead the people in God’s ways.  iii) The Sacrament of Reconciliation for the remission of sins.  iv) The Holy Eucharist as our spiritual food.  v) The Sacrament of Confirmation for a dynamic life of Faith.  vi) The Sacrament of Matrimony for the sharing of love in families, the fundamental unit of the Church. vii) Role models in thousands of saints We are expected make use of these gifts and produce fruits for God.

 2) Are we fruit-producers in the vineyard of the family? By the mutual sharing of blessings, by sacrificing  time and talents for the members of the family,  by humbly and lovingly serving others in the family, by recognizing and encouraging each other and by honoring and gracefully obeying our parents, we become producers of "good fruit" or good vines in our families.

3) Are we ready to face these hard questions? Have we come close to fulfilling God’s dream about us?  What kind of grapes do we as a parish community produce?  Are they sweet or sour?  What is our attitude toward everything God has given to us?  Are we grateful for everything God has given to us, or are we like the ungrateful tenants who acted as if they owned everything God had given them?  Do we practice justice every day of our lives? Do we recognize the righteousness of God that keeps us from self-righteousness? Do we remember to show mercy?  Is our parish a real sign of Jesus' presence and love?  What kind of impact do we have?  Do we measure the quality of our parish by what happens during Mass, or on what happens when we leave Church?  Obviously, both are important but there cannot be one without the other. 

There was a legend, well-known in New Testament times, that in the building of God’s Temple by Solomon most of the stones were of the same size and shape. One stone arrived, however, that was different from the others. The builders took one look at it and said, "This will not do," and sent it rolling down into the valley of Kedron below. The years passed and the great Temple was nearing completion, and the builders sent a message to the stonecutters to send the chief cornerstone that the structure might be complete. The cutters replied that they had sent the stone years before. Then someone remembered the stone that was so different from all the rest that it somehow did not seem to belong. They realized that they had thrown away the cornerstone. They hurried into the valley to retrieve it. Finally, from under vines and debris, they recovered it and with great effort rolled it up the hill and put it in place so that the great Temple would be complete. The stone that had been rejected had become the chief cornerstone. Jesus, who had been rejected now reigns at the right hand of the Father.

(Source: Homilies of Fr. Anthony Kadavil)

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