About 30 years ago, after the United States Navy once again transferred me from one coast to the other, Diane and I bought a home in a quiet neighborhood of a then-rural suburb of San Diego. It was the perfect home for our growing family, and beyond the back fence we were blessed with nothing but empty hills. Among its selling points were several mature navel orange trees. It also offered a small corral in the event one wished to own a horse. Why anyone would want to do such a thing has always escaped me.
Anyway, on the fence that circled the corral grew a grapevine. Now this vine intrigued me because it actually had a few bunches of grapes hanging from it. As I examined it on that first day I heard the voice of my neighbor who was peering over the fence.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “Grape vines demand too much attention, lots of pruning and care. And those grapes aren’t very good anyway. But your orange trees are healthy. Just make sure you water them.”
As it turned out, these few words from my nosy neighbor formed the foundation of my future agricultural efforts. Afterwards I often looked at that vine, but since I didn’t prune or water it, or really do anything for it, it produced little, just a few sour grapes. But its mere presence sometimes got me thinking about what Scripture had to say about vines.
Indeed, today we heard a lot of words about vines and vineyards, about good grapes and bad, and about violence and responsibility and love. It all began with the words of our psalm in which we see how God’s chosen ones had long seen themselves as a cherished vine planted by God:
“A vine from Egypt you transplanted; you drove away the nations and planted it” [Ps 80:9].
|Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed - Is 5:6|
If only they had been more attentive to God’s will for them…
Yes, if only…they would then have been fruitful.
As St. Paul instructed the people of Philippi in our 2nd reading: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious… think about these things” [Phil 4:8].
This, friends, is how we are called to live. Not as the Israelites did. Not in fear and anxiety. Not in violence and hatred. Not in anger and revenge. Such things should have no place in our hearts. And once we allow God to prune us, once we allow Him to remove those unproductive branches, then, as Paul reminds us, “…the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” [Phil 4:7].
And then, in our Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus takes Isaiah’s image of the vineyard and vine, and applies it to the chief priests and those who exercise their authority over the people.
In His parable, Jesus describes a vineyard owner whose servants are sent in advance to remind the tenants of all they owe the owner. But the servants are beaten and killed. And believe me; those listening to Jesus knew what He was saying, for that’s exactly what happened to the prophets.
Jesus goes on to predict His own death; for in their willfulness, their lust for power, the tenants commit the horrendous act of killing the owner’s son. Our Lord then asks His audience of chief priests and elders, “What will the owner do to those tenants…?” [Mt 21:40] Prophetically they reply that the owner will punish them and bring in new tenants to replace those motivated by violence and greed. And with that, Jesus turns their own words, their own prophecy, against them: “…the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit” [Mt 21:43].
And so, it’s through the sacrifice of the Son that the Father makes a relationship with new tenants. He does so by establishing a New Covenant. The Father, you see, doesn’t give up on the vineyard into which he had invested so much. No, the vineyard will endure, but it will be tended by others, tended by a Church that will appreciate all that the Father has done for His people.
Incidentally, I've actually heard Christians use this parable as justification for condemning the Jews. Such thinking goes against all that the Church teaches. As Pope Benedict told a delegation of Jews, the Catholic Church is “called to respect the Covenant established by God with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She also places herself… in the eternal Covenant of the Almighty, who does not repent of his plan and respects the children of the Promise, children of the Covenant, as her beloved brothers in the faith.” In the words of Pope Pius XII, “To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christian.”
|The kingdom of God will be given to a people that will produce its fruit - Mt 21:43|
This parable, then, isn’t a story about winning or losing. To think so is to misunderstand it. No, it’s about how we must tend the vineyard God has given us. For as the vineyard’s new tenants, we are called to care for it as we wait for the harvest. Unlike me, who did nothing to tend my California grapevine, we are called to be waterers and weeders, pruners and feeders.
Interestingly, brothers and sisters, when we tend the vine and make it fruitful, we do the same to ourselves. You see, my neighbor’s words about my unproductive backyard vine brought to mind the words Jesus spoke to the apostles the night before He died. Remember those words?
“I am the vine, you are the branches” [Jn 15:5].
Well, looking at that backyard grapevine of mine, one thing was obvious. The vine wasn’t at all like one of my orange trees with its trunk and the branches growing from it. No, as I looked at the grapevine I could see that the branches and the vine were one. Indeed, the branches are the vine! You can’t separate them.
Just consider what this means. Through the Incarnation, Jesus became more than just one of us. He became us! That’s right He became you and He became me! This is how He can say so emphatically: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” [Mt 25:40].
Just think of that! You and I and Jesus are one. And so to exclude another from your life is to exclude Jesus. To exclude another, to exclude Jesus, is to exclude yourself.
The good news? Jesus works right alongside us as we labor in the Father’s vineyard to usher in the Kingdom. Yes, in doing the work of the Father, Jesus does all the heavy lifting. We need only do as He asks.
And, brothers and sisters, the Kingdom bears fruit because the Church – and that’s you and I – is called to be merciful and just, as the Father is merciful and just. The Kingdom bears fruit because, as Jesus promised us, “I am with you always until the end of the age” [Mt 28:20]
And that day is still to come.