Fr. Roger J. Landry
Saint Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 2, 2005
Is 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43
1) What Jesus says in today’s Gospel parable has both a very important HISTORICAL meaning as well as a crucial ACTUAL meaning. For us to understand its present significance, though, we first need to grasp the historical lessons Jesus was teaching his original listeners. We’ll start there.
2) With the image of the vineyard, Jesus was summarizing God’s relations with the Jewish people. As God himself said through the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.” All of creation had been made “good” by God and entrusted to man, so that he in developing these gifts might participate in God’s work of creation and thereby also share in his own development. God gave him the command to “fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28 ).
3) But God gave the house of Israel more than just this stewardship over the great natural endowment of the earth. He also made them stewards of a greater gift, the Covenant he had established with the human race. Through Isaiah, he tells us with how much care he prepared this work for them: He “dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.” God himself, in other words, had done all of the hard work building the “infrastructure” of the vineyard, and gave the house of Israel the relatively light task of maintaining it and bearing fruit from it.
4) But what happened? God tells us through Isaiah that “he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” It had the appearance of growth, the outward show of fruit, but the fruit was worth nothing. “Fruit” is always to be interpreted as acts of love, justice, goodness, and faith. This is not what God found. “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” So the owner of the vineyard — God the Father, as Jesus tells us in the parable — sent his servants the prophets to them to remind them of the need to produce good fruit from all God’s gifts and to teach them by word and example how to do so. But their reaction was to kill the messengers. Jesus tells us, “they seized them and beat one, killed another and stoned another.” So God the Father sent others, “more than the first, and they treated them in the same way.” This is precisely what happened to God’s prophets; almost all of them were killed. Jesus, in fact, would later lament over the holy city, Jerusalem, because it was the site of the execution of so many prophets: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Mt 23:37).
5) Jesus tells us that after all of those unjust deaths his Father the landowner sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But rather than respond with gratitude for yet one more chance, they said to themselves, “‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” When Jesus said those words, he was telling them precisely what was occurring in their hearts at that moment and prophesying what would happen within a fortnight. That sentiment, “Come, let us kill him” reverberated throughout Pontius Pilate’s Courtyard as they screeched, “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” (Mt 27:22-23).
6) What was essentially going on within their hearts was that they did not want to be STEWARDS of the vineyard, but OWNERS. They did not want to have a God over them; they wanted to be gods themselves. Like power-hungry princes who kill any other claimants to the throne, they killed anyone who tried to teach them otherwise. The great English writer C.S. Lewis once said that the devil always tried to get us to think we’re owners. He wants us to say, like a whining little baby on its most selfish days, “Mine!”: “It’s my life, it’s my work, it’s my money, it’s my family, it’s my future, it’s my Sunday — Mine! Mine! Mine!”
a. On this Respect Life Sunday, we can see how the devil has insinuated this lie into the hearts of all those who justify abortion. Pro-abortion leaders will say, “It’s my body! It’s my choice!” But their child’s body is not THEIR body. Not even THEIR body is THEIR body; they’re stewards, not owners. Once the devil, however, has gotten someone to start thinking he or she is an “owner” and not a steward, disastrous consequences follow, which has happened 40 million times in our country alone since Roe v. Wade.
b. We see the same diabolical seduction at work among those people who are pushing for euthanasia (assisted suicide). They say, “It’s MY life. I’ll determine when it ends.” But it’s not their life. They’re stewards, not owners. It’s no surprise that once people start to think that we, rather than God, are the lord of the living and the dead, that other atrocities ensue. In the Netherlands, where they’ve practiced euthanasia now for over a decade, doctors have started to determine when life is worth living and have been taking upon themselves the decision whether to try to help the patient get better (which is their duty) or to put the patient to sleep like an animal.
7) This application to current events is the proper bridge to the full present meaning of Jesus’ parable to us. He tells his Jewish listeners at the end of today’s parable that the vineyard — the kingdom of God — “will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That’s what Jesus did in the founding his Church. He passed along the stewardship of creation and especially God’s covenant with the human race to the Church he had founded. In so doing, he showed that he trusts us enough to confide to us his own mission for the salvation of the human race. Like the landowner in the parable, he also shows how patient he is with us; he has constantly sent us saints to show us how best to take advantage of this incredible gift. But, like with the Jews, God is calling us to bear fruit in acts of self-giving love, justice, generosity, and faith. He wants us to ask ourselves this weekend what type of fruit have we been bearing. All summer long in the readings he has wanted us to examine whether we have in fact been rolling up our sleeves to work in his vineyard, no matter if we were called early in the morning or just recently. If the harvest master were to come right now, what produce would we be able to present to him? Would the growth be merely “wild grapes” or true acts of Christ-like love? We can all ask the Lord today in prayer to give us an honest assessment.
8 ) The deeper application I’d like to focus on today, though, is whether we look at ourselves as stewards or owners. Do we think that everything’s ours or God’s? Our answer to this question will generally determine whether we’ll bear good fruit or not.
a. If we look at TIME as God’s, we’ll try to spend it in his presence, keeping a spirit of prayer up all day long and then letting that prayer overflow into our actions. If we look at time as ours, on the other hand, many times we’ll resent coming to Mass — as if it’s a “tax” on “our” time. We’ll look at prayer as a burden rather than a blessing. We’ll jealously guard our “free time” rather than look how to spend it for the kingdom, laboring out of love for God and for others. And if we’re thinking like that, we’ll almost never bear anything more than wild grapes.
b. If we look at our TALENTS as gifts of God with a built-in purpose, we’ll consistently ask how we can best use them to build up the kingdom. If we look at them as ours, as if we’re the owners not the stewards, then we’ll use them above all to build up OUR kingdom instead of God’s. Moreover, if we think in this way, the more talented we are, the greater the risk will be that we’ll be overcome with pride; our talents will begin to divide us from others, making us think that we’re superior to them, rather than become motivations to “wash their feet” (Jn 13:1-17).
c. If we look at all our MONEY and POSSESSIONS as God’s, then we will seek to use them in the way they will most help build up the Lord’s kingdom. We will be like the stewards in the Gospel who received five talents and invested it to make for the Lord five more. One-hundred percent of our money — just like our time and our talents — is the Lord’s, but we always need to ask how much of it we dedicate to the Lord’s work. When the person comes with the collection basket, we should imagine that it is Christ holding the basket and ask ourselves whether He would think we’re being generous. If we look at the money as ours, rather than God’s, then we will often either be stingy with God and others, or be proud (thinking that someone should give us praise if we’re generous), when all we’re doing is giving back to the Lord a relatively small percentage of what he has given us. The more we think that our money and possessions are ours, the less the odds that we will produce the fruit which is the only currency we can transfer to the next world.
9) The key with all of this is that if we realize everything we have is a gift, then we will try to be as generous as possible in return; if, on the other hand, we think everything is ours, we will often try to do the minimum. As we’ve learned in school, those whose goal is merely to “pass” rather than to get an A are often those who end up flunking. The life that God has given us is like a game of poker with Jesus. We’ve all been dealt different cards, but, as Kenny Rogers once sang, “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.” Jesus wants us to win. He starts us out by having us meet him with a dime in. Then he raises us to a quarter. Then he has us match him at a dollar. Finally he says, “This is my body given for you!” and the only way we can stay in the game is with similar self-giving generosity. That’s what a life of faith is all about. The Lord who spent his human life on earth laboring in the vineyard, bearing the fruits of our salvation, turns to each of us and says, “I’m all in.” And he wants us to match him. If we recognize that he has given us all the chips, that everything we are and have is his, we will have no fear to meet him in this game of life with the highest of stakes. It’s only when we think that everything is ours that we fear the risk of going all in.
10) The altar is that great card table where Jesus where Jesus puts in the most valuable chip of all, hidden under the form of the host. It’s on the altar that Jesus likewise wants us to put all that we have. This is where he wants to collect the fruit we’ve produced in the Lord’s vineyard. This is where we will obtain the inheritance of the Son, not by killing him as those in the parable thought, but by loving and joining him.
11) It’s no surprise that Jesus, in summarizing all of salvation history, did so in the form of the image of a vineyard. He knew from all eternity that he would one day take the “fruit of the vine” and turn it into his own blood, which was the price of our salvation. In the raw material for the Eucharist, Jesus showed how he wanted to involve our efforts. He chose to use not grain and grapes, but bread and wine, which not only “the earth [God] has given” but “human hands have made.” It is here that we pray that “this sacrifice, yours and mine, may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.” In that vineyard which is the world, the Father is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches (Jn 15:1-7). If we remain in Him and He in us, then we will bear fruit in acts of love that will last forever. The Eucharist is the means by which we remain in Christ and he in us. As we prepare to receive Him now, we thank the Father for sending us His Son confident that we will not only “respect” him, but love and embrace him, and with Him, produce a harvest that will know no end.