Isaiah 5:1-7 Philippians 4:6-9 Matthew 21:33-43
In our first reading prophet Isaiah describes God’s disappointment with his vineyard, which is his Chosen People, Israel. Instead of yielding good grapes it yielded only sour grapes. Therefore God removed its protection. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell in 722 BC about twenty years after Isaiah began his ministry. And two centuries later it was the turn of the southern kingdom of Judah to collapse. Reading this passage with our Gospel parable today it also reminds us that Israel/Judah in the Old Testament has been replaced by the Church in the New Testament. And the Church is asked to produce fruit for God. Yet the Gospel reminds us that there should be a sense of recognition and hence a sense of gratitude for all that the Lord gives us. We are shocked that the tenants failed to recognise their partnership with the landlord. The problem is not that they failed to earn their keep. It is that their sense their entitlement hobbled their ability to respond with gratitude to what they had received.
In the parable of today we have the landowner giving his vineyard on deposit, so to speak, to the tenants, when he went on a journey. The vineyard represents Israel, the chosen people of God that had been freed from captivity, led to the land of promises and received endless blessings from the Lord. The landowner is the Lord God who owns the chosen people. They are His people, his tenants. As vintage time approached he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants mistreated and killed his servants and finally in exasperation the landowner sent his son thinking they would respect his son. But they also killed his son. The context of the parable in Mathew is that Jesus teaches the Jews after arriving in Jerusalem before his Passion. We know, and the Pharisees listening to Jesus knew very well that Jesus is referring to the prophets of the Old Testament who had been rejected and killed, and Jesus is now predicting his own death. He knew very well that it would be the inevitable outcome of his ministry. The crunch line comes at the very end when Jesus says, “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” We could see this as a reference to the Church in the first century becoming less and less Jewish and more and more Gentile. The deposit which had been given to the Chosen People would be taken from them because they did not keep it in trust as requested.
Moving back to the last Sunday’s parable about the two sons sent to work in their father’s vineyard. One promised to go and work there but he did not actually go. The other at first refused but later relented and went. The message of Jesus is clear that God’s people had disappointed their own creator, God. It was the formerly sinful Gentiles who took on the task of building the Kingdom. This should not be understood as anti-Jewish. On the contrary this was being written by Christian Jews for Christian Jews and it must have been a painful thing for them to see and accept. Today we have a parable saying more or less the same thing. The message clearly is that God’s people have been poor tenants in the Lord’s vineyard. Both the First Reading and the Gospel focus on the Lord’s vineyard, that is, the place where God’s people are to be found. But the response of the tenants in the vineyard was far from the expectations of the master of the vineyard.
Today, we are God’s people. We are the tenants in the vineyard. Now he expects us to produce fruit, fruit that will endure. We are all called to be members, active members of the Body of Christ, the Christian community, the Church. How do we visualize this call, as a privilege, a blessing, or a burden? Over the centuries, many prophets in our Christian communities have been rejected, abused and even killed. In the recent past in the State of Orissa we have seen the martyrs, the persecution and calumny. There have been people who have been killed for the sake of religion. The words in the First Reading are so true: “I expected justice but found bloodshed; I expected integrity but found only a cry of distress.” In today’s world we do not have to go far to see the relevance of those words. Hence Paul tells us in the second reading what we ought to be:”Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.” If we can live them out, then, says St Paul, “the God of peace will be with you.”
Jesus made two prophetic statements. First using the psalms Jesus says that the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Secondly, the Kingdom of God will be taken away and given to a people that produce the fruits of the Kingdom. Spiritually, Jesus was prophesying about this age and the standard that we must meet to inherit the Kingdom of God. The fruits of the Kingdom are like a checklist, namely, love towards everyone, peace with others and encourage others to make peace, patience in all things and in every place. Let us ask the grace that we may truly inherit the gifts of the kingdom in our lives and hearts.
Anecdote: ‘He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.’ This verse puzzled some women in a Bible study and they wondered what this statement meant about the character and nature of God. One of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot. The man said he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman asked the silversmith, ‘How do you know when the silver is fully refined?’ He smiled at her and answered, ‘Oh, that’s easy — when I see my image in it.’ If today you are feeling the heat of the fire, remember that God has His eye on you and will keep watching you until He sees His image in you.