OCTOBER 8TH, 2017: TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Let me now sing of my friend,
my friend's song concerning his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside;
he spaded it, cleared it of stones,
and planted the choicest vines;
within it he built a watchtower,
and hewed out a wine press.
Then he looked for the crop of grapes,
but what it yielded was wild grapes.
Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes,
did it bring forth wild grapes?
Now, I will let you know
what I mean to do with my vineyard:
take away its hedge, give it to grazing,
break through its wall, let it be trampled!
Yes, I will make it a ruin:
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
but overgrown with thorns and briers;
I will command the clouds
not to send rain upon it.
The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his cherished plant;
he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!
for justice, but hark, the outcry!
Brothers and sisters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in
Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
"Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to
tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,
another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
'They will respect my son.'
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
'This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.'
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?"
They answered him,
"He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times."
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
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."
Today’s first reading shows us that the image of Israel as Yahweh’s vineyard goes back at least 2,700 years, to the ministry of First-Isaiah. Yet it also shows us that Yahweh’s problem with the lack of produce from that vineyard also goes back at least that far. “(Yahweh) looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes. . . . He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!” Why go to all the trouble to plant and cultivate a vineyard when it produces nothing but frustration?
Matthew’s Jesus blames the problem on those who are “sharecropping” the vineyard, an obvious reference to the community’s leaders. They’ve basically stolen God’s property, refusing not only to turn over the produce, but even killing those who demanded an accounting of it.
Our gospel pericope is obviously an early Christian allegory. Though its roots most probably go back to the historical Jesus’ ministry, some of the “slots” have been filled in (for instance, the murder of the owner’s son) by the reflections of second and third generation Christians. But it’s important to see that the gospel Jesus isn’t rejecting Judaism in favor of Christianity, he’s simply saying the Jewish followers of his reform would make better leaders of God’s community. Or better, they should make better leaders.
As we’ll see later in this particular gospel, Matthew’s Jesus only criticizes Jewish leaders because the evangelist sees the same behavior in leaders of Christian communities. It’s a gentler way of confronting them than by attacking them head on. Matthew wants his readers to ask, “We’d never do that . . . would we?” Of course, the answer is, “Yes! You’re already starting to do it.”
Leadership in Christian communities has always been a problem. It contains the same pitfalls all leadership faces, especially the temptation for the leader to become more important than those he or she leads. But as Mark’s Jesus reminds – and warns - his followers in chapter 10, “That shall never happen among you.” Flying in the face of popular culture, among other things Christian leaders are not to be served; they’re to serve. Very difficult to pull this off when people are constantly fawning over you. Maybe one way to avoid such a pitfall is to give up your plush medieval palace apartment and actually rent two small rooms in a Vatican City guesthouse. Or. . . . every morning you can read and think about Paul’s advice to the Philippians which we find in today’s second reading.
“Keep on doing,” Paul insists, “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”
The Apostle is obviously much more concerned with passing on an example than with passing on a collection of dogmas. He expects his communities to imitate him, not just listen to him. If he can’t demonstrate how this new-fangled faith makes a difference in how he lives his life, then it’s not going to make a difference in their lives either. That’s why in his letters he so often tells people to live the way he’s living.
I’ve been disturbed by recent articles probing into the dilemma Pope Francis faces in choosing new bishops. It seems he has no problem finding priests who are dogmatically “safe;” they’re all over the place. But he frequently can’t surface priests who are committed to imitating both his servant, biblical approach to leadership and his simple lifestyle. Such characteristics seem to be rare commodities among the present younger clergy.
Perhaps Matthew should have been more direct in condemning bad Christian leadership. His gentler, indirect approach doesn’t seem to have worked.
I presume Pope Francis would agree.