October 2, 2011 — Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
As we come to autumn, we realize that it’s the season for harvest. Along with agricultural produce, we shall reap the crop of spiritual fruit that we have produced during this past liturgical year. Furthermore, we are accountable to the Lord of the harvest as to how well we have done, and we owe him his share of the fruit.
It is commonplace in religious instruction that the first half of the liturgical year focuses on what God has done for us. During Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, we emphasized Jesus’ Birth, Suffering, Death, and Resurrection, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The second half then focuses us our response to these wonderful demonstrations of God’s love for us. This scheme is an oversimplification, of course, but it has a kernel of truth.
In particular, the last few weeks of the liturgical year remind us that we are accountable to God for all the gifts he has given us and all he has done for us. And when the accounting is done, it becomes evident, sadly, that God’s people have not produced as rich a harvest as they ought to have done.
This is clearly the case in the First Reading from Isaiah, the Vineyard Song. God refers to his Chosen People Israel as his vineyard, but they produced only sour wild grapes, so what will he do? He’ll let the vineyard go back to wilderness and wild animals dwell there. The prophecy reached fulfillment when the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and took the inhabitants into captivity.
The Gospel recounts Jesus’ use of the vineyard image in the Parable of the Tenants, but gave it a different slant. In this parable the vines produced good fruit, but the problem was with the tenants to whom the owner had leased it. They were supposed to pay a portion of the harvest as the payment for use of the vineyard. Instead, they refused to hand over any of the produce and beat and killed the servants sent to collect the landowner’s share. Finally, he sent his son, whom the tenants killed, thinking they’d gain ownership of the vineyard for themselves.
When Jesus asked his hearers what the owner would do, they replied, “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 responded to these Jewish leaders, “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.”
Neither Jesus nor the prophet Isaiah was engaged in anti-Jewish rhetoric. But their point is the same as the one made by Jesus in another context: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:49). Because the Jews were the Chosen People and had received God’s revelation, he expected more from them – not just more in the way of tithes and sacrificial gifts, but also more faithfulness to God, more justice, more mercy, and more holiness.
And what about us? We have an additional advantage, for we have the complete revelation of God’s nature and will for mankind through Jesus Christ. We have the benefit of coming after Jesus made the perfect sacrifice of himself for the forgiveness of sins. We have an inexhaustible supply of grace for righteous living available through the sacraments.
With this advantage, how well do we measure up as stewards? Do we, like Isaiah’s vineyard, produce a few wild grapes, or do we produce great bunches of rich, juicy, sweet ones? Do we willingly present a fair share of the harvest our lives produce to God, or are we like the tenants in Jesus’ parable? We have been entrusted with much, so much is required of us.
There should be no doubt that we are responsible to God for our use of the gifts he has entrusted to us, and we are required to be faithful in returning a portion of what we produce with those gifts, a portion to be measured not only in material things but also in service to God and neighbor.
But we should always remember that God loves us and wants what is best for us. That comes out in the Second Reading. St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that they were to “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, … with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” If we do so, and concentrate our attention not on the filth in the world, but on what is true, honorable, just, pure, and excellent, “then the God of peace will be with you.” Thanks be to God.