Year A Ordinary 27
Winston Churchill during his time as a politician had a number of disagreements with other public figures, that much is true. He is often quoted as delivering various one-liners, and those quotes may or may not be true. But never let the truth stand in the way of a good quote for your homily, right? Churchill once quarreled with George Bernard Shaw, who then sent him two tickets to the opening night of his new play with the message to “bring a friend, if you have one.” To which Churchill replied that he couldn’t make it on the first night but that he would come to the second night, “if there is one.” In another exchange, he was upset with a politician who Churchill claimed had a much too high-opinion of himself. As this politician walked by, Churchill said, “There but for the grace of God goes God.” We might say the same of the vineyard workers in the parable that Our Lord tells – they want to be their own gods.
We know from our reading from the Prophet Isaiah that, “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,” and that’s the key to understanding what’s going on in the parable. The owner of the vineyard is God the Father, the tenants are the Israelites (and it bears mentioning that the vineyard metaphor is inherited by the Church, the new Israel), the servants sent to redeem the harvest are the prophets of the Old Covenant, and the Son is Jesus. The tenants desire to take God’s place, to rule over the vineyard and all its profits and produce, and their plan to do so is to murder the rightful heir. This, of course, predicts exactly what will happen to Our Lord, that even though prophet after prophet had been sent, they were all rejected and some even murdered, such as Isaiah himself who is thought to have been sawn in half, or John the Baptist, who had only a short time before Our Lord told this parable been beheaded.
But God never gives up. Try as we might, we cannot intimidate him out of his vineyard. We cannot steal his possession from him. You may be thinking that you didn’t murder Jesus, so what does this have to do with us here today? The thing is, the reason Our Lord willingly went to the Cross was to redeem every sin, past, present, and future. Those sins are an attempt to seize the vineyard and they are the cause of his death, so you and I are not innocent in this whole affair.
The result of our sins, and we should be clear about this even though it isn’t fun to think about, the result of our sins is death, it is eternal death in hell. So don’t mess around with sin, don’t talk yourself out of confession or get lax about it. I will “confess” to you right now that I am way too lax about going to confession, so I’m preaching to myself here. Sin isn’t to be taken lightly and we can’t shrug our shoulders about it. Our Lord makes clear that it is deadly serious. But he doesn’t tell us this parable to guilt us. He tells it because he wants to impress on us a fundamental, life-changing truth. We cannot steal or murder or sin our way into control of the vineyard…because God freely gives it to us.
And that is the twist in the story. It isn’t a straightforward morality tale about how we all need to behave or God will punish us. We know this because when his audience says that this is what should happen to the tenants in the vineyard after they murder the Son, Our Lord quotes Psalm 118, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Those who reject God may find that their dream of assuming ownership of the vineyard is a fantasy, but even their rebellious actions God is capable of turning to the good. The Cross seems to be a place of defeat but in fact it is God’s victory over sin and death.
The vines in a vineyard at harvest time are already in the process of being shorn of their fruits, and their leaves are preparing to wither and fall to the ground. To all appearances, the vineyard is already dying. Any attempts to violently wrest from it life are doomed to fail. This world, we know, as beautiful as it can be, is broken and dying, marred by sin, natural disasters, terrorism, family quarrels, sickness, depression, and disappointment. The vineyard is on its way to the grave, but the Beloved Son, Our Lord, gets there first.
Through his death, a new sap begins to course through our veins, and the grapes are no longer mere wine but are capable of bearing the marrow and meaning of the earth, the blood of Christ. Death is awakened into life, and the resurrection of Our Lord reaches to the furthest ends of creation. Von Balthasar hears the word of the Lord speaking to him in this terrible event, “Do you grasp this mystery? You live, work, suffer; and yet, it is not you: it is another who lives, works, suffers in you. You are ripening fruit…I live in you, and you live in me.”
God’s work is destined to be completed in you, for you are entirely his, and he is entirely yours. In him you are fruitful no matter how it appears when you survey your life, whether it has gone as planned or not, whatever setbacks or blessings you have experienced, you are fruitful, and each small act of kindness, each act of mercy, each prayer merits for you eternal life, because you are vines in the vineyard. You are cherished, and God freely gives to you his very life-blood for your redemption.
O Lord, may your sun shine upon your vineyard.