I am honored to be invited to share my reflections on the scriptures today. I am humbled when I think of all the profound words which I have relished over the years in this space.
One thing you should know about me. I spent two years in Palestine, teaching at Bethlehem University. Almost any scripture I read is colored by my experiences in that beautiful, anguished, holy place.
Today we are offered the image of the Vineyard, a well loved image in the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels. Why is it such a recurring image? I’ll offer a couple of reasons.
Palestine is an arid land. Rains come in the wintertime. Numerous water catchment devices hold the water through the dry season. Water collected and stored is not what you call pure or potable. .
In the scriptures we hear the term “living water”. This is water that comes from a deep well, which is more likely drinkable. While stored water is chancy drinking water, stored grape juice, especially fermented grape juice is not only safe to drink but it “gladdens the heart” as the Psalmist tells us. So vineyards are carefully tended and an important part of life in that arid land.
Secondly, grapes are native flora in Palestine. This is plus and minus. Let me explain. Do you grow roses? I do. Wild roses grow around here in wooded areas. I have removed more than one rose bush which has gone wild. Most cultivated roses have a wild deep root system which can survive our winters and a spliced bush which displays glorious roses. Roses must be tended lest they go wild.
So too with grapes in Palestine. They are tenderly cultivated, trimmed and nourished. Certain areas are renowned for special vines which produce very fine wine. These are greatly valued and tended very carefully. If neglected they can go wild.
Such was the fate of the vineyard in Isaiah, our first reading. God expends great effort on the vineyard, planting the vines on a fertile hillside. Grapes need hillsides, the best grapes for wine grow on the highest ground. God chose only the choicest vines, and carved out a depression for a winepress. (I can’t think of a winepress without thinking of Lucy and Ethel plodding in the wine press, covered with grape juice). The prophet speaks to all inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah. Judge between me and my vineyard. I did my part, says God. But you produced only wild grapes. A powerful picture of the harvest judgment. I will make my vineyard a ruin. It shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers. But God still claims the vineyard; the people of Judah are God’s cherished plant. But profound disappointment. Such promise. Such waste. Such distress.
Jesus takes up this familiar image of the vineyard. “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard ....” In this instance the audience is principally the chief priests and Pharisees. They knew the story about vineyards that produced only wild grapes, they knew that the people were failing to follow the Law and so were punished by the oppression of occupation. They sat back and listened, nodding their heads at the familiar story.
But wait. In Jesus’ telling, the vineyards produced very well. So well that the tenant farmers wanted to claim all the fruits of the harvest, as if they themselves had built and established the vineyard. Imagine the businesses in Trump Towers telling the Donald that they intended to stay there rent free. And then abusing and killing the rental agents who were looking for rent. This was outrageous. Totally unacceptable. a challenge to the whole system of landholding.
The chief priests and elders knew this was a judgment story but the tables were turned. This was a judgment on them, on the way they did not accept their role with the people but acted as if they were in charge, not God.
All three of the Synoptic authors, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, include this story in almost identical form. It must be important to them. Remember, the gospels were written decades later. The story is told to the early Christian communities. However, the writers need to be sure the new audience, many of whom were unfamiliar with the Hebrew scriptures, that this audience understands the message. So the gospel writers embellish the story, the landowner endures humiliating treatment of his
agents and messengers, even the murder of his agent. Finally he sends his heir.
As a child hearing this story, I thought why would the landowner send his son to those thugs? He wasn’t very smart. He should have brought the police or soldiers or some protection. Such is the foolish love of God. These early followers of Jesus, regularly remembering together the death and resurrection, knew the end of the story and that the stone rejected became the cornerstone. The chosen and cherished now included them. Jerusalem and the Temple were no more.
The closing words of the story speak to their hearts: “For this reason I tell you, the kindom of God will be taken away from you (that is the Jews) and given to a people that will yield a rich harvest.”
So now we have read the story in Jesus time and in the early Christian era. But the story is read today, in our hearing. What does it say to us here and now?
Well, that’s easy. Jesus, after all, was speaking to the leaders of the people. The church hierarchy blew it. They claimed the power given by God for themselves. The days of reckoning are at hand for them. That lets us off the hook. HMMMM. I’ve had two recent experiences which leads me to say, “Not so fast!”
The first is the outcome of work and study I have done as a member of a resource group of the Coalition for Church Reform. It’s about Newman’s concept of sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful). The governance authority of the hierarchy, the intellectual authority of the theological community, and the common sense lived experience of the faithful are all three necessary for the full expression of the magisterium. I know that sounds pretty obtuse and churchy but it boils down to this for me. No wonder we are in such a muddle with the Church teachings, the voice of the people of God has been silent. We are in trouble if the full voice, all three parts, are not fully realized and expressed.
Then last Thursday night I attended the premiere showing of a video produced by Catholics for Marriage Equality. By the way, our own Lisa and Brent Vanderlinden are featured in the video. At the end of the presentation, Mary Kay Orman, the director/producer of the video, a woman who received a certain DVD in the mail, was outraged, and decided to do something about it, addressed the audience. She said, “WE are the leaders. Now is the time. We must have the courage to find
So now back to our story of the vineyard. It isn’t only the hierarchy in the Church which has failed. Our silence for these many years has contributed to the Church losing its way. This isn’t a statement of shaming or fault finding but a call to fully live our baptismal call. The community of the People of God is a community of equals, a community where all the gifts of the Spirit must be fully realized. We must have the courage to find our voice.
Paul’s message to the Philippians is a message to us, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious ... think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then
the God of peace will be with you. ”
There are many gifts but the one Spirit. We are the Spirit of St Stephen’s Catholic community. We offer our gifts for the good of our community here. And we offer our gifts for the good of the Catholic community. We offer our gifts for the good of all humanity. We offer our gifts for the good of the whole amazing universe.
The kindom of God will be given to a people that will yield a rich harvest.