Sunday, October 5, 2014

The New Israel Must Bear Fruit (27A)

I call today the "three C" Sunday, because of three words beginning with the letter "c."  The readings are complex.  Their message is crucial.  But we have to make it concrete.

I found three distinct messages in today’s readings, which are closely connected, and I’d like to deal with them one by one.

The first message is: God is never the cause of our failure, because he has done all that is needed to assure our success.

In just a few words, Isaiah sums up the entire history of Israel.  The prophet begins by describing God's care and concern for his people, and then he chronicles their infidelity.

And then comes the rhetorical question.  The owner of the vineyard has done everything possible to assure a fruitful vineyard.   Can it be the fault of the owner that the harvest is sour grapes?

The answer, of course, is no. It’s not the owner who’s to blame, and both this reading and the psalm describe what comes next.  The vineyard will be trampled and parched.

This scary theme continues in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus re-tells Isaiah's story, but with a twist.  The vineyard itself is no longer the focus; the tenants are.  And the sour grapes are replaced by vicious murder.

Clearly, we’re still talking about Israel, but this time her history of infidelity to God's covenant is overshadowed by a foretelling of the crucifixion.  So there’s our second message: The ultimate infidelity is the rejection of God's Son.

On account of this, the vineyard is taken away entirely from the old tenants, and let out to a new people, the Church.

This reading of the parable is very comfortable.  It puts Isaiah, Psalm 80, and the words of Jesus in a nice historical box.  It doesn't come too close to us, even if we do admit some solidarity with our ancestors in faith.  It's all about the past.

But then Jesus goes and disturbs us in our comfortable pews.  The final words of the Gospel today are "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom."

I don't want to sound flippant, but we've just been zapped!  Historically, Jesus was speaking to the chief priests and elders who were in his audience, but actually, here and now, he is speaking to you and to me. 

And there’s the third message: We are the new Israel, the people who must produce the fruits of the kingdom.  And if we do not, we’re no better than the vineyard overrun with weeds, we’re no better than those tenants who scorned the landowner and killed his son.

In the face of such a direct hit, we might be tempted to do some spiritual wiggling in order to get back to our comfort zone.  After all, I wouldn't kill anyone; and I certainly would share my produce—if I had a garden.  This is, after all, a parable, and these metaphors can mean what I want them to mean.

The Word of God does not give us that "out."  The New Testament makes it perfectly clear what God expects from his people.  In Matthew's Gospel, John the Baptist tells the crowds "Bear fruit worthy of repentance."  St. James says that peacemakers sow seeds that will bear fruit in holiness.

Look at the long catalogue of the gifts of the Spirit which St. Paul gives in 1 Corinthians chapter 13: Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; it is never rude or selfish, always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope—what are these but the fruits of the Spirit-filled life?

What are the beatitudes—mercy, poverty of spirit, humility and so on—if not the fruits which God wants from his vineyard?

We could spend weeks examining ourselves in the light of the harvest of holiness that Scripture describes in every detail.

And what about the weeds which threaten the vineyard of the Church, the scandals we hear about from time to time, the tensions in our families, in our parish, in our lives? How do we pull up the weeds that choke the abundant life God wants us to live?  In other words, how do we face up to weakness—our own and others’— in light of our Scripture this morning?

Today's second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians suggests three answers:

First, we should recognize that the Lord of the Harvest is never deaf to the cry of his people.  The psalmist today acknowledges the sorry state of God's vineyard, but he doesn't hesitate to say “turn again, O God of hosts”—take another look, don’t give up on this vine you yourself have planted.

In other words, we must pray for the Church and for ourselves. St. Paul calls us to peaceful prayer, to a confidence in God's providence that casts out anxiety and tension.  "Do not worry about anything," he says.  Pray instead.

Second, we must work at it. We must make a conscious effort to grow in the faithful following of Christ.  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received, St. Paul says, and the God of peace will be with you.  Scandals in the Church are most hurtful to those who themselves know they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.  A calm personal conscience makes it easier to deal with the failures of others, because you know for yourself that Christian living is not as impossible as the media wants us to believe.

Finally, we must find our comfort in Christ.  St. Paul says that God's peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

If you feel sometimes that life’s just too much for you, you’re probably right.  But it’s not too much for the Lord, who gives peace to those who ask Him.

So when you get right down to it, today's message isn’t all that complex. But it’s crucial for Christians living in the concrete circumstances that each of us face every day in the vineyard of the Lord.

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