Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Out for a stroll on an autumn day,
a man found himself alongside a pumpkin patch,
standing beneath a mighty oak tree.
“Sometimes I just can’t understand God’s ways!” he thought.
“Imagine, letting tiny acorns grow on such majestic trees
while huge pumpkins grow on delicate vines!”
Which was right when an acorn dropped from the branches above
and hit the man square on the head.
“Forgive me, Lord!” he instantly prayed.
“If I’d had my way, that would’ve been a pumpkin.
Clearly you know better than I!” (traditional Sufi story)
This is the third Sunday in a row
that we spend, not among the vines of a pumpkin patch,
but in the vineyard of the Lord.
Two weeks ago, Jesus told the parable of the workers hired late.
Last Sunday, it was the parable of a father
assigning chores to his two sons.
The vineyard was a familiar religious metaphor
for those who heard the preaching of Jesus--
already used, as our first reading reminds us,
by the prophet Isaiah more than seven hundred years before.
This Sunday, the vineyard--
what ought to be an image of peace and plenty--
is portrayed as a place torn apart by violence.
We hear a tale which could easily have been taken from the daily news.
It seems to be a story about “regime change,”
as one ruling class is brought down and replaced by another--
with much too much bloodshed in the process.
Hearing such a parable should give us pause--
as it did the chief priests and elders who first heard it.
Aren’t we the tenant farmers in the vineyard?
Amid all the fraud and corruption,
the apathy and laziness which mark the modern world,
is Jesus putting us on notice?
Of course, that interpretation would assume
that we are the center of the story.
Note how Jesus prefaces his three parables about the vineyard.
He makes it clear that he’s not describing the kingdom of man--
a reality with which we’re all too familiar.
No, Jesus is trying to get us to understand the kingdom of God--
a kingdom which operates
according to a very different set of principles.
You see, in Jesus’ description of the vineyard,
even in light of all the jealousy and greed,
even after rejecting the owner’s messengers and killing his son,
the vineyard will not be destroyed--
not torn down in vengeance by the landowner;
not left to be ransacked at the hands of his tenants.
The landowner stands his ground--
and he’s the center of the story.
There’s no change in regime!
God endures. And God’s kingdom endures.
Despite the turmoil, despite the rebellion,
God is--and always will be--the only one who’s really in charge.
We’ve simply leased a small corner of the vineyard.
Yes, we’ve been promised a rich inheritance,
but that’s only by God’s free and gracious gift--
not something we can snatch up for ourselves,
by means either fair or foul.
I guess you could say that the three parables of the vineyard
are meant to put us in our place,
and to make sure we leave God his place--
to make sure we leave room for God to be God.
Today is Respect Life Sunday,
and that gives the message of these parables a particular urgency.
Offences against human life,
offences against the dignity of the human person,
come in countless guises:
an epidemic of illegal drugs, and the violence which accompanies it;
the horrors of war, whether inflicted on combatants or civilians;
poisoning the environment and impoverishing rural communities
through the unscrupulous use of earth’s resources;
viewing the elderly and the imprisoned,
the severally handicapped and the terminally ill
as just another expensive burden--
and one we might consider disposing of.
The offences may indeed take many forms,
but the same impulse is behind them all:
we put ourselves at the center;
we want to call all our own shots;
gasping for control even over human life and death,
we attempt to make ourselves God.
Talk about a story of regime change!
This reversal of roles is made oh-so-poignant when we realize
that the generous words of Jesus spoken at the Last Supper,
making sense for us of his self-sacrifice on the cross,
are the very same words so often used
to defend the selfishness of abortion:
“This is my body…but I won’t give it up for you.”
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI,
recently shared these thoughts on human progress:
A major examination of conscience should begin today.
What really is progress?
Is it progress if I can destroy?
Is it progress if I myself can make, select,
and dispose of human beings?....
[There is] the claim that…whatever one can do,
one must be allowed to do.
Anything else world be contrary to freedom.
Is that true? I think it is not true.
We see how enormously man’s power has grown.
But what did not grow along with it
was his ethical potential. (Light of the World, p. 44)
We, the current tenants, have put a lot of time and effort
into developing the vineyard…
…but for our own gain and entirely according to our own plans.
We’ve been acting as if we’re the landowners.
The result? A bumper crop of wild grapes--
a bitter vintage leaving many lives crushed in its wake.
For our own sake,
and for the sake of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters,
we must learn again to submit ourselves to God’s designs--
to let God be God.
When we resist the temptation
to take the central place for ourselves,
to imagine that we know better,
then we can live lives--as Saint Paul encourages--
free from all needless anxiety:
lives filled with that peace which surpasses understanding.
To put it in terms I once saw on a coffee mug:
For peace of mind,
resign as general manager of the universe. (cf. L. Eisenberg)
My friends, that position is already taken,
and by One who’s infinitely more qualified.
We’ve spent three weeks exploring the Lord’s vineyard,
but it takes a lifetime--maybe an eternity--to learn its lessons.
Nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ--
by the fruit of the true Vine--
may we keep learning how to live under the Lord’s regime,
to produce the good fruit of the kingdom of God.