Fr. Roger J. Landry
Saint Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 5, 2014
Is 5:1-7, Ps 80, Phil 4:6-9, Mt 21:33-43
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
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.
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.” The vineyard is ultimately all of God’s people, all of the children he has created. And we are meant to work and cultivate that vineyard. We know that at the beginning of time, God made everything “good” by God and entrusted the “vineyard” of the whole world to the human person, so that in developing these gifts we might participate in God’s work of creation and thereby also share in our own development. God gave us 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).
But God gave the house of Israel more than just this stewardship over the great natural endowment of the earth, of creatures, and of human beings. 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 personal care God took in preparing the vineyard of Israel. 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, clearing it so that it can bear fruit, putting a watchtower in it to guard for animals coming to eat the fruit, establishing a wine press so that fruit can immediately produce joy. He gave the “house of Israel” the relatively light task of maintaining that vineyard and bearing fruit from that Covenant.
Bearing Wild Grapes
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).
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).
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. Pope Francis said in his homily in the Vatican this morning that “it is the farmers themselves who ruin the Lord’s plan: they fail to do their job but think only of their own interests. … [They] took over the vineyard. Out of greed and pride they want to do with it as they will, and so they prevent God from realizing his dream for the people he has chosen.” 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!”
Thinking We, Rather than God, are Lord of Life
On this Respect Life Sunday, we can see how the devil has insinuated this lie into the hearts of all those who justify abortion. This is a special day in which we pray for the cause of life, for an end to abortion, for the help fearful, pregnant need to be able to receive their children with love no matter how they were conceived or how many problems one has, to pray for healing and forgiveness for those women who have tragically made the choice to end their children’s lives in the womb. Pro-abortion leaders trumpet the diabolical idea, “It’s my body! It’s my choice!” But their child’s body is not their body. Not even our body is our body; we’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, something we’ve seen happen 55 million times in our country alone since Roe v. Wade.
We see the same diabolical seduction at work among those people who are pushing for euthanasia (assisted suicide). People say, “It’s my life. I’ll determine when it ends.” But it’s not their life. Once again, we’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 two decades, 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. Several have begun involutary euthanasia, putting patients to death without their consent or, if they’re not capable of giving consent, without their family’s consent, and when the families try to prosecute them, they’re let off scott-free by the courts which has basically agreed with them that certain lives are not worth living. Last year, 4,829 people died of euthanasia in the Netherlands, a rise of 15 percent over the previous year and 151 percent in the last seven years, and these figures don’t even include what’s called “terminal sedation,” where the patient is sedated and then has food and fluids withdrawn. Physician-assisted suicide is not the cause of death of one out of every eight deaths in the Netherlands, and the percentage is growing fast. Now many senior citizens who are sick don’t want to go to the hospital when they’re ill out of fear that their doctors will kill them without their permission.
Producing the Fruit of the Kingdom
These applications to current events are 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 world. 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 bear the fruit of the kingdom. Bearing fruit requires work, as anyone who has ever tended vines know. They require a lot of patient pruning to cut off branches that waste the sap so that good branches can grow and produce plump, juicy grapes. Isaiah in the first reading and Jesus in the Gospel describe how the majority of Jews didn’t want to do that patient, constant work of the vineyard and so rather than produce good fruit the people just produced wild, sour, good for nothing, small grapes, because all of the essential energy was being wasted rather than focused on the fruit God intends.
God wants us today to ask ourselves what type of fruit have we been bearing from the gift of our life, from the gift of grace, from the gift of the Covenant and all the blessings with which God has endowed us. For the last several weeks in the readings he has wanted us to examine whether we have in fact been rolling up our sleeves to work hard 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 bushels of acts of Christ-like love?
Two nights ago, we had a bus load of pilgrims go to Woonsocket, RI, for a night of prayer on the passion and purpose of our life, led by Matthew Kelly, whose books have been given out at Christmas and Easter. He asked a powerful question: What will the Church in our country be like in 20 years? For us in the northeast, it’s a particularly pressing one: Will we keep closing and merging parishes and closing schools? Will we keep getting fewer people coming to Mass each weekend? Will our families be getting smaller and more and more divided? Matthew said, correctly, that the answer to the question of what the Church will be like in a generation totally depends on the response we make now, whether each of us responds to God and bears fruit. He said that there are 77 million Catholics in the United States and he had us imagine what would it be like for all 77 million to live faithfully and bear fruit: how much stronger our country would be. But then he made it personal. Imagine, he said, if you multiplied yourself and the way you practice the faith by 77 million. If there were 77 million yous, what would the Church be like today and in 20 years? Would the Church be stronger and more vibrant, or weaker and dying? He said we should ask the same question about our parishes. Imagine if every parishioner practiced the faith the way we practice the faith. Would the parish be stronger? Would there be many more volunteer hours or far fewer, would the collection go up or take a great hit, would participation at Mass skyrocket in the enthusiasm of the responses or would there be some weekends in which no one came to Mass because there are some weekend you just don’t put God in the proper place? The Lord today is calling upon each of us to bear fruit for the kingdom, fruit in such a way that if our efforts were multiplied by every parishioner or every Catholic in the country, it would be like Napa valley at vintage time.
Thinking and Doing
There are two steps to bearing this type of fruit. St. Paul describes them at the end of today’s second reading. He tells the Philippians and us first to think about what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing to God, commendable and praiseworthy. Then he tells us to do these things, just as we have learned and received and witnessed St. Paul do before us. Right thoughts and right deeds. This, of course, applies to every issue, but on this Respect Life Sunday, which U.S. Catholics have been celebrating on the first Sunday of October since 1972, we are called to apply the apostles’ words to the way we think about the gift of human life, made in God’s image and likeness and the way we act with respect to it .
With regard to thinking correctly, we have to admit that there is confusion in some Catholic circles. While the Church has always taught the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, sometimes Catholics have have been led to other conclusions on the basis of some scandalous behavior by, above all, some prominent Catholic politicians and the failure of Church leaders adequately to correct them. Some Catholics have concluded that the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life are, basically, optional, and that it really makes no difference whether one follows them or not. Thanks be to God, that is changing. St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have spoken out in the strongest possible terms about the need for Catholics to be actively pro-life not just in thought but in action. They and the US Bishops with them have been calling to conversion all those support abortion, from politicians, to judges, to medical personnel, to citizens.
Last September, Pope Francis called the right to life “the primordial right of every human being” and emphatically summoned us to recognize Jesus in the unborn: “Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection.” Because every child bears Jesus’ image and likeness, each of us has a “mandate,” Pope Francis said, to “be witnesses and diffusers of the ‘culture of life.’ It’s not enough for us to be personally opposed to abortion, but we must give testimony and spread the message of life. He stressed that “being Catholic entails a greater responsibility” even if it “requires going against the tide and paying for it personally.” He underlined, “The Lord is counting on you to spread the ‘Gospel of life.”
To think correctly, we must think, St. Paul says, about what is true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, praiseworthy and pleasing to God. Most often those who support abortion don’t want to think about what it really is and want to prevent others from doing so. They abhor looking at images of the aborted babies retrieved from dumpsters and oppose laws giving women a chance to see an ultrasound of their baby before they choose to end its life. The abortion movement was founded on lies as one of the most notorious abortion doctors ever, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League, testified after his conversion. He said that he personally in testimony grossly exaggerated the number of so-called back-alley abortions and deaths prior to Roe v. Wade. He said that they constantly used lies on language, pretending as if what is growing in the womb was not a human being, but just a clump of cells with “potential human life,” rather than a being at exactly the same stage of development as each of us once was, and as Jesus once was, in our mothers’ wombs. If there’s any practice in the world that is not the opposite of what is true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, praiseworthy and pleasing to God is the wicked, dishonorable, unjust, dirty, despicable and displeasing killing of those in whom God out of love infused a human soul and formed in his own image and likeness. Jesus in the parable today describes the Father’s saying, “They will respect my Son!” But instead they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. In every abortion, what happens to God’s sons and daughters in the womb is the greatest of all disrespect: they are killed, torn apart and thrown out of the fruitful vineyard of the mother’s womb, which is meant always to be a place of life, not an execution chamber.
This leads to second point St. Paul describes, that we have to act on right thinking and do what we have learend and received and witnessed the saints do before us. As Catholics, we are called to be persons with integrity, not saying one thing and doing another, but hearing the Word of God and putting it into practice. We’re supposed to act on the Gospel of life. God, as Pope Francis says, is counting on us to spread that Gospel.
The involves first prayer, which must be the first action of Catholics in everything. We must pray for pregnant women, especially those in hardship; pray for those who have made the tragic choice to kill a child in the womb; pray for the conversion of those in the abortion business and for those who support abortion; pray for those on the front lines of defending those whose lives are threatened. St. Paul calls us today in the second epistle not to have anxiety, but in everything, by prayer and petition, to make our requests known to God. That’s the first way we seek to bear fruit for the kingdom. On Saturday, we will be going to pray outside the last remaining abortion facility in our Diocese, which is in Attleboro. Will you join us?
The second thing we’re called to do is to sacrifice to support those people and organizations that advance the cause of life, by volunteering when we can and by financial support. We need to support those who need our help, regardless of how their children were conceived, and to help both before and after birth. That begins in our own families and our parish, but it extends to places like helping A Woman’s Concern here in Fall River. We’re also called to speak out about this great evil. And we’re called to vote consistent with what is true, honorable, just, pure, full of love and gracious, something that basically we could never really do for someone who supports abortion. None of us would ever vote for someone who thinks spousal or child abuse should be legal. None of us would ever vote for an anti-Semite who wants to execute Jews or for a KKK leader who wants to lynch those with black skin color. How can we ever vote for someone who thinks that those who are older, more developed, and more politically powerful should have the the right to end the lives of those they don’t want who are smaller, younger and totally helpless. And yet that is what many Catholics who would never vote for racists, or spousal abusers, or anti-Semites do all the time for those who support the deliberate execution of human beings still in the womb. Here in Massachusetts, both of our Senators and all of our Congressmen support abortion, every single one, and Massachusetts if 47 percent Catholic. We’re voting for those who want wild grapes rather than real fruit. We’re voting for those who create bloodshed and the silent scream of millions rather than justice. Our country cannot long survive if we countenance that we can simply kill off the younger generation for basically any reason. God tells us today through Isaiah that he is patient, but he won’t wait forever for us to bear good fruit .Jesus reiterates the same thing in the Gospel, saying that if we don’t produce fruit of the kingdom, the vineyard will be taken away from us and given to others. He wants fruit God is counting on us Catholics to do so. Now is our moment.
Attaching ourselves to the Vine to bear fruit
Today God wants to strengthen us to help him in a harvest of righteousness instead of blood. The altar is where Jesus wants to collect the fruit of the kingdom. This is where we obtain the inheritance of the Son, not by killing him as those in the parable thought, but by loving and joining him. In loving him here in his most humble of appearances, we learn how to recognize him and love him in others, even in the smallest human embryos made in his image and likeness. 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 “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine” but “the work of human hands.” It is here that we bring our patient, hard work and where God prunes us. 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 in the blessed fruit of every womb, and with Him, produce a harvest that will know no end!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
my friend’s song concerning his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside;
he spaded it, cleared it of stones,
and planted the choicest vines;
within it he built a watchtower,
and hewed out a wine press.
Then he looked for the crop of grapes,
but what it yielded was wild grapes.Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes,
did it bring forth wild grapes?
Now, I will let you know
what I mean to do with my vineyard:
take away its hedge, give it to grazing,
break through its wall, let it be trampled!
Yes, I will make it a ruin:
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
but overgrown with thorns and briers;
I will command the clouds
not to send rain upon it.
The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his cherished plant;
he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!
for justice, but hark, the outcry!
PS 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20
A vine from Egypt you transplanted;
you drove away the nations and planted it.
It put forth its foliage to the Sea,
its shoots as far as the River.
R/ The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
Why have you broken down its walls,
so that every passer-by plucks its fruit,
The boar from the forest lays it waste,
and the beasts of the field feed upon it?
R/ The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
Once again, O LORD of hosts,
look down from heaven, and see;
take care of this vine,
and protect what your right hand has planted
the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
R/ The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
Then we will no more withdraw from you;
give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
O LORD, God of hosts, restore us;
if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.
R/ The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.
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
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.
“Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and 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.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him,
“He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
Therefore, I say to you,
the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”