Sunday of Week 27 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

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

Today’s parable is linked to last Sunday’s about the two sons sent to work in their father’s vineyard. One promised to go and work there, but he did not actually go. The other at first refused but later relented and went. The message of Jesus is clear (especially in the context of Matthew’s Gospel).

God’s people had disappointed their God. It was the formerly sinful Gentiles who took on the task of building the Kingdom. This should not be understood as anti-Jewish. On the contrary, this was being written by Christian Jews for Christian Jews and it must have been a painful thing for them to see and accept.

Poor tenants
Today we have a parable saying more or less the same thing. Strictly speaking, it is not a parable, but an allegory. A parable normally presents one lesson and the details are not relevant; while, in an allegory, each detail of the story has a symbolic meaning.

The message clearly is that God’s people have been poor tenants in the Lord’s vineyard. However, we read this not to sit in judgement on certain people in the past. We must be careful to be aware of the relevance of this parable for our own situation. We are not reading it for historical reasons but for reflection on our own lives and behaviour.

The Lord’s vineyard
Both the First Reading and the Gospel focus on the Lord’s vineyard, that is, the place where God’s people are to be found. At first, Jesus chose the Israelites to be his own people. He was with them on their wanderings in the desert on the way to “a land flowing with milk and honey”. The Lord asks in the First Reading:

What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

But the response of the people/tenants in the vineyard was far from the expectations of the master of the vineyard:

When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield rotten grapes?

In Jesus’ story, the owner sends his servants to collect the harvest. Instead, the tenants seized, beat, stoned and even killed the owner’s messengers. This happened again and again. The message is clearly understood by Jesus’ hearers. The Lord had sent his prophets to remind his people of their duty to serve, to be a fruitful people. Yet, one by one, God’s messengers were rejected.

No respect even for the son
Finally, the owner’s own son was sent. The owner said:

They will respect my son.

But no. He also was seized, thrown out of the vineyard and killed. They could now take over the vineyard for themselves. It reminds one of the arrogance of our first parents who thought the knowledge of good and evil would give them power over God; of those who tried to build a tower that would reach right to the heavens. And the killing of the son “outside the city” is a clear reference to Jesus dying on the cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Called to the Lord’s vineyard
Today, we are God’s people. We are the tenants in the vineyard. Now he expects us to produce fruit, fruit that will endure. The obvious question for us to ask ourselves today is: How are we doing? Are we any better than the chief priests, the elders, the Scribes and the Pharisees? We are specially privileged, by baptism, to be called to work in the Lord’s vineyard. Each week we are invited to gather together to hear the Gospel message and to make it part of our lives. We are all called to be members, active members of the Body of Christ, the Christian community, the Church.

Many martyrs
How do we see this call? Do we find it a privilege, a blessing, or a troublesome burden? How well have we received the message of the Lord?

Over the centuries, how many prophets in our Christian communities have been rejected, abused and even killed? We think of Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Oliver Plunkett and, in our own recent times, Bishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, the countless victims of violence all over our world.

All these martyrs have one thing in common. They were killed not by pagans, but by fellow-Christians, tenants in the Lord’s vineyard. We can hardly feel superior to the people Jesus is criticising in today’s Gospel. Isaiah’s words in the First Reading are so true. The Lord:

…expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry!

In so many parts of the world, we do not have to go far to see the relevance of those words.

What kind of grapes?
Even so, we may feel we have not personally been part of any of this. Yet, what kind of grapes do we as a parish community produce? Are they sweet and luscious, or are they pinched and sour? Is our parish a real sign of Jesus’ presence and love in this part of our city? What kind of impact do we have?

Are we living out the words that Paul proposes to the Christians of Philippi in today’s Second Reading:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

And he goes on:

As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them…

These last words are quite a challenge for all of us. But if we can live them out, then, says St Paul:

…the God of peace will be with you.

Parish vineyard
Our parish community is our vineyard. It must not produce sour grapes that no one can eat. It must be open to the various ways the Lord speaks to it, whether those people are Church leaders or prophetic voices which may sometimes say things which are painful to hear.

There is always a temptation for a parish to become a security blanket for those who do not want to face up to the challenges facing every society. When that happens, it tends to cling to old, fixed ways of doing things and to resist change. People who propose changes that are necessary in serving a constantly changing society may be resisted and resisted very strongly. Each parish can find itself producing its core of “chief priests and elders” (who, by the way, may not be the clergy) who will make sure that prophetic voices (who may or may not be the clergy) and people with real vision will be effectively blocked.

It is just as easy for us in these times to fail to recognise the voice of God in the messengers he sends us, just as the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ time failed to recognise the Word of God in him. More than 100 years ago, Cardinal Newman said:

To live is to change; and to be perfect is to have changed often.

If we are not really making sure that our vineyard produces rich grapes, not only for us but for others, too, to enjoy, then we are falling short as “tenants”. It may well happen that the Lord would ask others to come and take our place.

If our church was closed down, sold off and turned into a dance hall, what real difference would it make to our district? Of course, we who come here regularly would miss it, but what of others who never step inside? Are we really concerned about that impact or do we think more of our own personal religious obligations and needs? Do we measure the quality of our parish by what goes on in our church building or by what happens when we leave it? Obviously, both are important but there cannot be one without the other.

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