Many of us here are surely old enough to remember a time when religion’s public place in American society seemed strong and secure, when Church attendance was higher than it had ever been, when seminaries and convents were bursting at the seams, and when it seemed as if things could go on like that forever. A similar assessment could be made in the secular world. Many of us here are likewise old enough to remember a time when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, unions were strong, a family could support itself on a single salary, prosperity was widespread, and inequality was much less. Back then, 50 or 60 years ago (before, for example, the contemporary plague of divorce), a meeting like the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops that begins today in Rome, probably would not have had for its title, “The Pastoral Challenges for the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” – or, if it did, it probably would mean something somewhat different.
And so we may easily appreciate the Prophet Isaiah’s description of the vineyard that had so dramatically failed to produce its expected crop of grapes [Isaiah 5:1-7]. Just as we, in our society, seek explanations for things that seem to have gone wrong, likewise the Prophet Isaiah was offering an explanation for the disasters that Israel was facing. In ancient Israel’s case, of course, there was no ambiguity about why things were going badly. Isaiah’s vineyard represented God’s People who, in spite of all God had done for them, had failed in fidelity.
Centuries later, Jesus used the same image of the vineyard to challenge his hearers regarding their own behavior by judging the way they in turn either did or didn’t live up to their responsibilities [Matthew 21:33-43].
When vintage time drew near, the landowner in the parable, naturally sought to collect his share of the harvest and so sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. Now, as is always the case in conflict situations, both ancient and modern, how we hear and interpret the facts depends in large part upon whom we identify with in the story.
Yet, even though this particular parable does not begin with the typical, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” it is nonetheless obvious that we are intended to hear and interpret it in continuity with Isaiah’s vineyard story. In other words, we are intended to hear and interpret it from the standpoint of the landowner, who is obviously the parable’s stand-in for God.
Historically, of course, Jesus addressed this parable to the chief priests and elders of the people, with whom he was in conflict. Through them, however, he is now addressing this parable to all of us. And for us it should be obvious who is being sent, when the landowner sends his son. Hence his question (What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?) is addressed as much to us, as it was originally to the chief priests and elders of the people. And, like them, we all know the obvious answer, even before we hear them say it.
This, of course, is what being a disciple challenges us to do – to look at ourselves and at our relationship with God from God’s point of view. When we do that, then we necessarily have to re-evaluate everything – just as the stone that the builders rejected was re-evaluated in order to become the cornerstone. And then we will become a new kind of tenant – a people that will produce fruit.
Now that’s actually meant to be good news. The challenge of the parable is to recognize the incredible opportunity God has given us in sending us his Son – a life-transforming opportunity to be productive tenants in God’s vineyard, a people that will produce fruit.
Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 5, 2014.