Sunday, October 5, 2014

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

In both our first reading from Isaiah
and in our Gospel from Matthew,
we hear about vineyards.
And in both Isaiah and Matthew the vineyard is representative
of the people of God:
those whom God has called into his covenant of love.

But there is an interesting difference:
while Jesus’ parable is addressed to and focuses on
those whom the owner has put in charge of the vineyard—
“the chief priests and the elders of the people”—
Isaiah’s oracle makes no mention of leaders or caretakers,
but focuses on the vineyard itself.
In Matthew, the leaders of God’s people Israel
are held responsible for their failure
to give God his due and to respect his emissaries.
It is a powerful indictment of religious leaders
who use their positions for their own benefit
and forget that they are here to serve God and God’s people.
In Isaiah, however, it is the vineyard itself that is at fault;
it is the vineyard, not those who are put in charge of it,
that is accused of producing wild grapes
that are bitter and unfit for consumption
rather than the good fruit
that is a source of joy and nourishment.
It is the vineyard itself
that must bear God’s rebuke,
not those who tend it.

So what does this mean for us, who are God’s people,
the vineyard that God has planted and protected,
in which God has erected the winepress of the sacraments
and the strong tower of God’s Word, revealed in Christ?
On the one hand, it means that those into whose care
God has entrusted the Church
must never forget
that they are but tenants, caretakers;
Church leaders must carefully tend
what God has planted,
always remembering that it is God’s Church, not theirs,
and all the spiritual fruit that the Church produces
must be returned to God to do with as he will.
According to Jesus’ parable, when the tenants forget
whose vineyard it is that they are tending
the result is violence directed at God’s messengers,
and, ultimately, God’s Son.
I suspect that the result of such forgetting today
is less obvious.
Some Church leaders may treat God’s vineyard
as something to exploit for their own personal gain.
But a more common result of forgetting whose vineyard it is
is an overdeveloped sense that what grows in the vineyard
is something that they must control.  
Of course, part of the good stewardship
that leaders should exercise
is tending the life of the Church
in ways that will make her
fruitful and pleasing to God.
But this is something different from trying
to micromanage the spiritual growth of the vineyard
so that it produces the fruits that they desire,
forgetting that it is God’s vineyard
and that it is God to whom
the harvest of its fruits is owed
and who will judge
which are pleasing and which are not.

But in reflecting on the meaning
of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard,
we ought not forget the vineyard of Isaiah.
Remember, in Isaiah no fault was found
with those tending the vineyard;
rather the vineyard itself was faulted
for producing bitter, wild grapes.
At various times and places
the Church may have good or bad leadership,
and we may not even agree
on what constitutes good or bad leadership—
I might think that Pope Benedict was a careful, thoughtful leader
and that Pope Francis is dangerously off-the-cuff,
while you might think Pope Benedict was a stodgy old coot
and Pope Francis a refreshing breath of fresh air
(I should note that both are excellent Popes
compared to some of the Popes of, say, the 10th century).

At the end of the day, however,
while it is better to have good leaders than bad,
you who are the people of the Church
have to stand on your own two feet
and take responsibility for your life as Church.
Dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Church
is no excuse for disengaging or producing bitter fruit.
If we want to be a vineyard that produces good fruit
then we must make it happen—
by which I mean that we must let God make it happen in us;
we must let the Holy Spirit fill us with, as St. Paul said,
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”
At the end of the day,
the kind of fruit that the Church produces
is as much the responsibility of you who are the vines
as it is of any bishop, priest, or deacon.

God has planted us in this vineyard
so that we might bear good fruit
and God has given us what we need to do so:
the consolation of the Spirit present in our community
and manifest in our commitment to each other,
God’s word and sacraments to strengthen us,
and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
God has provided all of this to us in abundance.
Now let’s bear some fruit.

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