Monday, October 3, 2011

Homily for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
27th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
Oct. 2, 2011
Matt 21: 33-43
Wood Badge Scouters, Camp Alpine, N.J.
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.*

“When vintage time drew near, the landowner sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce” (Matt 21: 34).

A vineyard in Tuscany, shot by my sister a couple of years ago

People in many parts of the world can identify with Jesus’ use of parables about vineyards—possibly some of your own parents or grandparents from Italy, Spain, Germany, or France. In many parts of the world, too, people would identify with the situation of great landowners, oftentimes living elsewhere, and with tenant farmers and sharecroppers. All that was commonplace also in 1st-century Palestine, just like sheep and shepherds, fishing, weddings (next Sunday’s parable will involve one), and the dangers of certain roads. So for 3 weeks running we’ve heard Jesus telling stories, stories with a message, in which vineyards and landowners have figured, along with day laborers, sons, and tenant farmers.

As the 1st reading and the psalm response to it demonstrated, the image of the vineyard carried a specific meaning to the Jews. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant” (Is 5:7). “A vine from Egypt you transplanted…. Once again, O Lord of hosts, take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted” (Ps 80:9,15-16). The people at large, the disciples, and certainly “the chief priests and the elders of the people” to whom Jesus specifically addresses this parable (Matt 21:33) would’ve made the connection. In fact, 2 verses following today’s reading, Matthew says as much: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they knew that he was speaking about them” (21:45).

The parable is presented as an allegory. God, not physically present to Israel, his vineyard, has entrusted its care to kings and to priests. When they should be presenting him with the fruits of his vineyard—pure worship and upright living—they have often not done so. So the Lord has sent his servants, the prophets, to remind them of their obligations. The prophets usually received rough treatment, and any reform in Israel was all too brief. Finally, God has “sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son’” (21:37).

For the people for whom Matthew wrote his gospel, ca. 80 A.D. (it doesn’t have a copyright date), the reference to God’s Son would have been obvious: the leaders of the Jewish people conspired against him, “threw him out of the vineyard” (21:39)—outside the city of Jerusalem, where they crucified him—and completed their rebellion against God’s plans and God’s rule by trying to establish their own earthly kingdom, revolting against the Romans in 66 A.D. And “those wretched men [were] put to a wretched death” (21:41); Jerusalem was totally destroyed, amid horrid bloodshed, by the army of the Emperor Titus in 70 A.D.—a Roman conquest described in terrible detail by Josephus, an eyewitness, in The Jewish War, and which you can still see today graphically represented on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum. And God “took away the kingdom from them and gave it to a people that will produce its fruit” (cf. 21:43), the new people of God, the Christian people.

If last week’s parable of the 2 sons who were asked to go and work in the vineyard was a parable calling for all who listen to Jesus to make a decision whether to obey his teachings, to heed the plan of God for their lives, today’s parable is that and more: it’s also a parable of judgment, laying out the consequences of rejecting the plan of God, rejecting the one whom God has made the cornerstone of history. Thus the parable is addressed not only to the chief priests and elders of the people but to you and me.

For if the new people of God is the Church, then we’re now in the place of the tenant farmers. We’re working God’s vineyard, and he expects us to produce some good grapes, some good wine, for him. We’re answerable to God—not to ourselves, not to our employer, not to the government. Our lives aren’t our own, our bodies aren’t our own, the goods that we enjoy, our jobs, and our leisure aren’t our own. They’re all part of the vineyard that we’re caring for, stewards on God’s behalf, just like the 1st man God created, as we read in Genesis: “The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate it and care for it” (2:15).

What’s the fruit that God expects us to produce for him? Obviously it’s not grapes or wine. We could propose many answers. The prayer we’ll offer shortly, the prayer over the gifts, speaks of “our obedient service.” That refers, in the 1st place, to the service of our liturgy, our offering the Eucharist in memory of Jesus. But, like the 2 sons in last week’s parable, our public word must be backed up by our action. “Our obedient service” has to go beyond worship into life. God also expects of us obedience to his law, submission to his will as we see it unfold in our lives. When the commandments are hard to obey, when the Church’s moral teachings are hard to obey—whether that be in our private lives or in the public arena—God is calling on us “to obtain his produce.” When life becomes difficult because of illness, the failure to get the raise we wanted, someone’s gravely disappointing us, some plan of ours getting completely whacked, or the death of someone dear to us—you can think of many scenarios about life’s disappointments—God is coming “to obtain his produce” by our accepting with good grace what we can’t control or change.

We can also look for an answer to what God expects of us in the Pauline reading. Paul urges the Philippian Christians to think about “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy” (4:8). Of course Paul means more than just thinking about it: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen” (4:9). Be truthful, honorable, just, pure, gracious. Strive for excellence. Earn praise—not that you desire praise from human beings, but praise from the One who really matters, the One who knows your heart, the One to whom we’ll all bring our produce at the end of our lives, hoping to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:21).
* With some variations in the text more appropriate for them.

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