Saturday, October 04, 2014

Problems in the Vineyard

I thought I would share some thoughts about the readings for tomorrow's mass, the twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The gospel reading, Matthew 21:33-43, is a parable Jesus said to the chief priests and elders about a vineyard. It is important for our understanding that we first look at the context. This parable follows the parable of the two sons we heard at last Sunday's mass, and both of these parables are addressed to the religious leaders in Jerusalem who had just asked Jesus in verse 23, "By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?" They are challenging Jesus at this time because the day before he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, received by cheering crowds as if he were the king, and then he went into the Temple and kicked out the money changers. These priests and elders see themselves as the ones in charge, and Jesus comes in like he owns the place. They want to know, "who do you think you are?"

Jesus refuses to directly answer their question in verses 24-27 because they are unwilling to answer his question about John the Baptist. They are not interested in John's message of repentance but are instead concerned about political issues. Therefore, Jesus speaks about obedience versus appearances in the parable of the two sons, and in this Sunday's parable, he goes after their performance as religious leaders of the Jewish people using the image of a vineyard.

The first reading for tomorrow comes from Isaiah 5:1-7 and is another story about a vineyard. In this story, God is the owner of the vineyard and he does everything he can to make it a successful vineyard. Isaiah identifies the people of Judah as the plant that God lovingly cherishes, but instead of responding to God's care by producing good grapes, they produce wild grapes. The wild grapes are symbolic of the evil, bloodshed, and injustice practiced by the people of Judah. Because of the people's lack of response to God's care, he is going to remove his protection from them.

No doubt, the religious leaders that Jesus spoke to were familiar with Isaiah 5, so it was not too big of a leap for them to think that a parable about a vineyard might be symbolic of themselves. However, Jesus' parable is different from the story in Isaiah. The issue in Jesus' parable is not the quality of the grapes produced by the vine, but the behavior of the tenants to which the owner of the vineyard leased it. The tenants refuse to respect the messengers the owner sends to collect his share of the produce, but instead they abuse or kill the messengers. The tenants represent the religious leaders of Israel, and the messengers are the prophets God sent to call them to repentance. We learn from Isaiah that the good grapes are the good deeds that God expects from the people of Judah in response to his loving care. In this parable, God has left his vineyard in the care of these religious leaders, so he expects them to be working on his behalf, leading the people to grow in goodness, and thus returning produce back to him. Instead, however, they are using their positions of leadership to further their own good, neglecting the spiritual good of the people, and when prophets are sent to correct them, they are mistreated and killed.

Finally, we see that the owner decides to send his son, who represents Jesus. Rather than respecting the son, the tenants see this as their chance to get complete control of the vineyard, so they kill the son. Jesus is predicting his death at the hands of the religious leaders and says that God's response will be to remove them from their leadership and give the vineyard to someone else. This is a prediction of the establishment of the Church under the leadership of the apostles, and the destruction of the Temple 40 years later, ending the rule of the current religious leadership.

So, how are we to respond to this story today? Is Jesus' condemnation a justification for Antisemitism? May it never be. Jesus is condemning the religious leaders of his day, not the Jewish people in general, and especially not the Jews of our time. However, it is a warning for anyone who exercises religious leadership today. Whether we are clergy, or we're exercising some kind of spiritual leadership as laymen, including in the context of our families, we must realize we do not work in the vineyard for the sake of our own advancement. Rather, we must seek to lead others to grow in grace and love for God, and thus return to God the produce of his vineyard.

Why do religious leaders sometimes do the work for their own advantage rather than according to God's purposes? Part of the problem is addressed in the day's Epistle reading, Philippians 4:6-9. People get anxious and are tempted to take for themselves rather than giving themselves away in service to God. St. Paul urges us, therefore, to bring all of our concerns to God in prayer and depend on him to provide for our needs, giving us peace that surpasses all understanding.

So, let us spend time with God in prayer, keeping our minds set on things above, and casting all of our cares before his throne. This will free us to be able to then give ourselves in ministry to his people, which will lead to a harvest given to God for his glory.

No comments: