Our recent history has keenly focused our attention on the fragility of our national society and its institutions, both religious and secular. 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 not universal but was more equally spread. 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. Just as we instinctively seek explanations for the things that have gone wrong, likewise the Prophet Isaiah both sought and provided an explanation for the disasters that Israel was facing. In that case, of course, there was no ambiguity about why things were going so badly in Israel. The vineyard in Isaiah’s song 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 those whose task it was to harvest the vineyard either did or did not live up to their responsibilities.
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. One could, for example, identify with the tenants, constructing an ideology in which right is on the side of the oppressed peasants.
Yet, even though this particular parable does not begin with the typical introduction, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” it is pretty obvious, nonetheless, that we are intended to hear and interpret it in continuity with Isaiah’s vineyard song. 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.
In thus structuring the story so that the tenants have no excuse, Jesus has set it up so that neither can we claim any excuse for our own personal irresponsibility. 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, for whom it should be obvious who is being referred to, 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 in the first instance, 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 conversion, becoming a disciple, challenges us to do – to look at ourselves and at our relationship with God without excuses, 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. Our predicament has a solution. We can get right again with God (and with one another). Unfortunately for those in the parable’s original audience whose failure to respond positively to Jesus provided the historical basis for the parable, what’s meant to be good news for the world may have sounded like bad news for them. 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 change our ways and become at last faithful and productive tenants in God’s vineyard.
Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 8, 2017.