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Jesus is about to die when he tells the parable we hear on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A. And he knows it.
It’s a parable unlike any other that he tells, and its message is world-changing.
It is interesting to consider what parables were so urgent that Jesus feels he has to share them at the high point of the drama of the incarnation.
Ever since his big reveal about who he is and what he will have to suffer — which Moses and Elijah themselves call his “exodus” — Jesus has been resolutely headed to Jerusalem.
Then he enters the city in triumph as people cry “Hosanna!” He is ready to give his life for our sins. He is ready to glorify the Father. He is ready to give us the ability to live his life on earth. What does he do next?
He has a strict schedule and he gets right to it: First, he cleanses the Temple, reclaiming the sacred space that belongs to him. Then, he confronts the Jewish leaders who question his authority. He has important teaching questions to wrap up: About his authority, about the authority of Caesar, and about the nature of the Resurrection.
But the first priority for Jesus is to tell important stories. We heard one of them last week, about the two sons — the disobedient son who pays meaningless lip service, and the obedient one who doesn’t. This week, we get a pointed and (to the Pharisees) triggering story.
It’s urgent for Jesus to tell this story because of what it says about salvation history, and what it says about personal salvation: yours and mine.
The story’s allegory is pretty clear and pretty tight.
The landowner is God, the tenants are sinful humanity — his chosen people in particular — and the servants he sends are the prophets. We could spend hours spelling out what this parable says about each of those characters. Here’s a brief overview:
First: The landowner, God, does everything for his people. He plants the vineyard, he plants the hedge around it to protect it, he digs a winepress in it and builds a tower. In other words, God provides all the goods we need, keeps us safe, and even provides a way to turn those goods into intense delight (wine). But notice how he gives us the means to get all the good we can, but leaves the rest to us: We have to work for him in the vineyard; we have to trample and ferment the wine with him; we have to man the tower under him.
Second: The servants he sends, the prophets, are prevented when they attempt “to obtain his produce.” Even though it is God’s world, and his goods, we tenants don’t want to give up the goods to God. In the story, tenants seize and beat up the servants. This is a perfect icon of sin where we manhandle our consciences to prevent God having his way.
Third: Jesus Christ is the son he sends. The tenants — the Jewish leaders then; you and me now — kill him in order to own the produce of the vineyard. For them, this means the crucifixion. For us, it means mortal sin. This casts the crucifixion not just as Jesus’s self-sacrifice, but the rejection of his plans by his own friends. The No of our sin forces him to change his plans and stops his progress in the world as definitively as if we nailed him to a cross.
If you look at the verbs, you can see the whole history (and future) of the world in this parable.
That’s what Dr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, who is now the monk Fr. Simeon, points out in his commentary on Matthew. This is salvation history:
There’s an important tale to be told about what this means for the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. But what is perhaps more pressing in the tale is what it means for our place in salvation history.
Because we know two things about the Church and us.
We know that the Church of the New Covenant will not be replaced by a new group of tenants. And we know you and I will absolutely be replaced if we don’t keep to our posts.
St. John Chrysostom, as always, has a concise and illuminating view of the matter.
He points out how the vineyard story shows that “God’s providence had been at work toward them from the outset; their disposition was murderous from the beginning; and nothing had been neglected of whatever pertained to an attentive care for them.” Amazingly, “Even when prophets had been slain, God did not turn away from this people but sent them his very Son.”
Those words apply to us as well, and, chillingly, so do Chrysostom’s next words: When we reject his plans, precisely because we “have received so much care from God,” we are “now found to be worse than harlots and publicans, and that by a wide margin.”
If you look at the other readings this Sunday you see just how dire the situation is. Sunday’s Psalm and Sunday’s First Reading from Isaiah give two different views of the vineyard, almost like a call and response.
The Psalm gives voice to what you and I might say about the situation we find ourselves in, begging God to “protect what your right hand has planted,” and promising that, if he does, “then we will no more withdraw from you.”
In America, we might say “We dedicated to you a godly experiment as a democratic Republic, granting freedom and lifting nations out of poverty. But now our country consists of warring factions in a culture of death. Why have you abandoned us?”
Isaiah gives us God’s response: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? … I will make it a ruin!”
His answer to America might be: “I planted an elaborate vineyard of 17,000 parishes nationwide for you to transform the culture with the Gospel. Instead, you adopted the world’s ways of greed, complacency and service to your appetites, turning my land into warring factions in a culture of death. Why have you abandoned me?”
It seems like we have messed things up, bad. And if Jesus is true to his word, he won’t break his promise to the Church, but he will take his grace away from parts of it — Europe has lost its Catholic character seemingly for good, and America is following quickly on its heels.
What to do? St. Paul comes in once again as the consoler. And just in time.
What can we possibly do in a situation like this? It’s really very simple: Do the things we are supposed to do. Trust the providence of God. He gave us everything we need to keep the vineyard up and running. We just have to man our stations — first a few of us if need be, but then more and more.
“Have no anxiety at all,” writes St. Paul. “Make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
God is still the master of the vineyard, doing all the hard work. He just asks us to do our small jobs. As the Gospel acclamation puts it, “I have chosen you from the world, says the Lord, to go and bear fruit that will remain.”