27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I am not a fervent devotee of the fruit of the vine. But since it is a requirement in my line of work, I just go along. I don’t mind. Now I much prefer the raw unprocessed product, but that is not negotiable. I have always thought that those who grow grapes do so primarily to make wine. Not all of them, but probably most. I want to support their work, so every so often, I will purchase a bottle to cook with, and once a year an assortment, mostly to give away … for when I come to dinner. (Wink, wink.)

Now whenever we hear about vineyards in the bible, we know it is an image of God’s people, Israel. The prophet Isaiah in the first reading tells the story of a “friend” who planted a vineyard that didn’t produce a proper harvest. This “friend” worked really hard to find a fertile hillside, clear it of stones, till it, manure it, plant the choicest cuttings, build a watchtower and a winepress, but all his hard work only yielded wild grapes. I have a hunch. Reasonably, wild grapes cannot come from the choicest vine cuttings. Maybe whoever sold him the cuttings was a fraud. That would be my first suspicion. I won’t be able to tell the quality of a vine cutting just by holding it in my hand, even if the vendor is standing right in front of a whole vineyard of what he claims is that very same selection. But that’s just me. So I say this “friend” got got. But it takes a few years for vines to bear fruit. In the meantime that vendor is long gone, leaving a string of unsuspecting victims in his wake. But the story doesn’t go that way. It seems the vendor of the cuttings is above suspicion. So the “friend” takes his frustration out on the vines. Stupid, stupid vines. Now it is not my place to tell him to chill. I don’t grow grapes. I don’t know what all this “friend” had been through, how much time and labor and resources he poured into his vineyard. “Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command clouds not to send rain upon it.”[1] A tad harsh, I say. But wait for 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!”[2] So we’re not talking about vineyards and grapes no more. And if Israel and Judah haven’t been paying attention, I’d say God was fixing to dump a boatload of you-know-what on them.

Then Jesus tells a similar parable, an updated version with familiar overtones. A landowner planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants. At harvest time, he sent servants to the tenants to obtain his share. Instead, the tenants rose up in revolt. They seized the servants, beat one, killed another, stoned a third. Mr. Landowner somewhere far away was shocked, so he sent his son to see to the problem. And him, the tenants killed. I can say I have a little more sympathy for the vineyard in Isaiah’s story, but absolutely none for the tenants in Jesus’ story. “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 his produce at the proper times.”[3] But Jesus wasn’t done. Lest anyone misunderstand, he goes in for the kill. “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.”[4] We don’t see the lightbulbs come on. But if we keep reading, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard [Jesus’] parables, they knew that he was speaking about them.”[5]

So we read this parable today, and we know it applies to us as much as it did to Jesus’ listeners in his day. But we are in total denial if we think that the tenants in the vineyard of God today are just the clergy. I agree that the pope, bishops, priests, deacons, and church ministers bear a proportional share of responsibility in caring for God’s vineyard and gathering the harvest. But we are all in this together. In another passage, Jesus calls himself the vine, and we the branches. But if the branches on the vine fail to produce fruit, he says they will be cut off, thrown into the fire, and burned.[6] Clearly, the harvest is not to be taken lightly. And we don’t get to walk away.

The message we hear today is both a challenge and a warning. God is patient and compassionate, even beyond reason. But at some point, that harvest will be due. We cannot just sit and watch while other people work. Some might tell me they have already put in their share of work. I’m not going to argue with you. Like you I am just a tenant. And someday, I too will have to step back and let someone else take my place. But the work is bigger than any one of us. It doesn’t stop when we decide we’re done. So even those who may have taken a lesser role still have skin in the game. This is homecoming season. And players on the field know the importance of friends and supporters in the bleachers. What they see and hear affects them. Now former players will often feel more invested, taking a win or a loss more personally than the ordinary benchwarmer. But all of the tenants in God’s vineyard have a stake in the harvest. Unlike retirement from our earthly careers, we don’t retire from our work in God’s vineyard until we are called back to corporate headquarters. Branches on the vine that fail to produce fruit are cut off and thrown into the fire! And you didn’t hear it from me!

God’s vineyard is a big place and we who have been given care of some portion of it are going to be held accountable for our service. What becomes of all the hard work of those who came before us, and the condition of the vineyard when we hand it off to those who come after us, depends on our stewardship. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. St. Paul heads the cheering section today. “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. … Think about the things that are true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and gracious, and whatever is excellent and worthy of praise. … Then the God of peace will be with you.”[7] Rah-rah-rah!!!

I am reminded of a prayer composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw MI, often attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero. “It helps, now and again, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. … This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”[8]

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] Isaiah 5: 6.

[2] Isaiah 5: 7.

[3] Matthew 21: 40-41.

[4] Matthew 21: 43.

[5] Matthew 21: 45.

[6] John 15: 6.

[7] Philippians 4: 6-9.

[8] http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/archbishop_romero_prayer.cfm