P.S. Don't forget to pray for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, taking place right now in Rome!
Homily: 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A
Grape vines can be finicky things. I wouldn’t know anything about that except that there was a little winery about a mile and a half down one of the country roads near Saint Meinrad, where I went to seminary. On a nice fall afternoon, some of the seminarians and I would hike the mile and a half to the winery, taste a couple of samples, then purchase a glass and sit out on their porch, overlooking the vineyard. We often had time to talk with the owners about what it took to cultivate vines for grapes.
As it turns out it is a pretty involved process as grape vines can be very sensitive to different conditions; and if everything isn’t just right then you won’t get a good grape. It’s a process that requires meticulousness and patience. When starting up a new vineyard, one has to wait at least a couple of years for the first “sweet” grapes, good for making wine, appear. For the “richer flavor” grapes, one has to wait five or more years; and if anything harsh happens in between (like a hard frost in late spring) the wait is even longer.
As we sat and enjoyed the fruit of such a labor, we often wondered “Why would you want to go through all of that?” Inevitably the response of the owners was that they simply loved the idea of producing a good fruit from their labors. In other words, they didn’t do it for profit (though, I’m sure that they hoped there would be one!), but rather they did it for the joy of what could be produced.
Perhaps this is what makes the image of the vineyard and the vinedresser such a popular one for parables in the Scriptures. In the ancient near east there were vineyards everywhere, which made this image very accessible to just about everyone. And because it presents an image of someone who oversees and diligently cares for creation it is also a very apt one when trying to describe God’s involvement in our lives. Today our scriptures offer us two different parables using the same image that help us to shed light on our relationship with God and the stewardship that he has given to us.
In both parables, God is portrayed as the dutiful owner of the vineyard who does everything in his power to provide the perfect environment for the vines to grow and produce a good fruit. Not only does he cultivate the land meticulously, but he also places a hedge around it to protect it; and he even digs a wine press in it, in anticipation of the good fruit that he expects the vines will produce. In short, he does everything any good vinedresser would do who wants to ensure a good harvest of fruit.
In Isaiah’s parable, we find that the owner of the vineyard, when he comes in search of fruit from his vines, finds not the good, sweet grapes ready for the press, but rather wild, bitter grapes which are no good for anything except to be thrown out. In the parable the vineyard owner asks “What more could I have done?” The implied answer is, of course, “nothing.” This also implies that the failure to produce a good fruit is not the fault of the owner, but rather the fault of the vines themselves and it is meant to be a conviction against the Israelite people who had rebelled against God, allowing “bloodshed” and “outcry” to take place instead of “right judgment” and “justice”. For this, the prophet warns them, the Lord will take away his protection from them and they will fall victim to the militant nations that surrounded them.
It should not be hard for us to see ourselves in this parable. Who here hasn’t been the recipient of God’s gracious protection at some point in their lives, only to find yourself “chasing after the wind”, feeding your passions and producing bitter fruit? In greater and lesser degrees, we probably still find ourselves “producing bitter fruit” instead of the rich harvest that the Lord created us for. And is this because the Lord hasn’t provided for us in any way? No! Rather it is our own human weakness and propensity to use our free will for our own selfish ends that produces such bitter fruit. Thus, this parable today should also be a renewed call to each of us to turn from our selfish ways—daily if necessary—and to seek first the building of God’s kingdom.
In Jesus’ parable, we find that the owner of the vineyard, after securing a good harvest of grapes, goes on a journey and leaves his vineyard to others to tend in his absence. When the owner sends his servants to bring him his harvest, the tenants turn against them: hoping to seize the harvest for themselves. Showing an incredible amount of patience with these rebellious tenants, the owner sends other servants and then his own son, hoping that the tenants will rethink their rebellion and turn over the harvest. These they also kill, as their greed for the harvest so overcomes them that they become blind to the certain consequence of their actions. The chief priests and elders name this consequence: they themselves will be killed and the vineyard will be given over to others who will be loyal to the owner and give him the produce that is rightfully his. Jesus issues this as a warning to the religious elite, the chief priests and the elders, who have seized the Lord’s vineyard—his chosen people—for themselves; thus betraying the stewardship that they had been given.
For us this is also a warning. As baptized Christians we have all been given a stewardship in the Lord’s vineyard to tend his vines and produce a harvest of fruit when the Lord comes to seek it. If we simply come here week to week to “feed off of the grapes” but fail then to go forth from here to preach the good news of salvation and to work for justice, then we are no better than the wicked tenants that refused to hand over to the vineyard owner the good fruit that he had worked so hard to produce. Thus we also condemn ourselves to the same disastrous fate that those wicked tenants would suffer: to be cast out of the kingdom of God into the hell of eternal death.
Now it seems to me that, in both of these cases, there is one common thing that is missing that leads each of these groups of people into their rebellion against God; and I think that if we consider what they were missing in the light of our own rebellions against God we, too, will find the same thing missing. What is this thing? Gratitude. Why did ancient Israel rebel against God and produce the bitter fruit? Because they took God’s graciousness to them for granted instead of remaining thankful for His vigilant care. Why did the chief priests and the elders act as they had to the prophets of God and to God’s Son himself? Because they allowed themselves to become blinded by the authority they wielded instead of remaining thankful for the stewardship that they had been given. And why do we still sin against God? I imagine that it’s because we often forget God’s graciousness to us—and, thus, our debt to him—and so we use the gifts that he has given us to pursue our own selfish ends; and, thus, produce bitter fruit and fail in the stewardship that we have been entrusted with.
My brothers and sisters, examine your lives and see if this isn’t true: whenever we fail to give thanks for the graciousness given to us we become bitter and self-absorbed; but when we give ourselves to gratitude we become gracious and more focused on others. This is why we gather each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist: to remind us of our need to give thanks for all that God has done for us—most especially the gift of life and for the redemption won for us in Christ Jesus—and to receive the grace to go forth from here to fulfill the stewardship entrusted to us: the building of God’s kingdom, his vineyard, so that a rich harvest might be produced.
You know, it’s no mere coincidence that the Scriptures are full of images of vineyards and that we offer the fruit of the vine as part of our thanksgiving offering here on this altar. And so, my brothers and sisters, may our offering this day—and every day—be the sweet fruit of gratitude for all that God has done for us in Christ Jesus; and may we carry that gratitude forward to bring God’s blessings to the world around us.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – October 4th & 5th, 2014