Killing the Son in the Father’s Vineyard
It must be time for grapes to be harvested, because we've heard about vineyards the last three Sundays. Two weeks ago we had the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, last week the parable of the two sons who were asked to work in the vineyard and today the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard.
This parable flows from the first reading for this Sunday, from the first section of Isaiah. In the first reading a vineyard is cared for, but it does not produce fruit, so it is destroyed. In the gospel for today, it is not the vineyard that is bad, but its tenants who kill servants and even the son of the owner. They will be destroyed so that someone else may care for the vineyard properly.
The vineyard in this parable is the Kingdom of God. It is the Church in the broadest application of the term Church. The vineyard is cared for by wicked tenants who are concerned only with their own gain. They are willing to cheat, steal and even kill to bolster their own lives. They use the vineyard for themselves instead of caring for it.
This parable answers the question of the ancient Jewish world: if this Jesus is really the Messiah, the Christ, why is it that non-Jews, Gentiles have flocked to him, while the chosen people, the Jewish people, have not? The answer is that the leaders of the people had become mean spirited and even corrupt. This should be no surprise. The parable states. Their fathers killed the prophets, and their sons killed the Holy One. The parable gets so specific that it mentions that the Son was taken out of the vineyard and killed. Golgotha was outside of the City of Jerusalem.
Throughout this parable Jesus makes a direct attack on the chief priests and leaders of the people. They are not concerned with caring for God's people. They are concerned with themselves. The pharisees treated every day people like dirt. Every day people weren't holy enough for them. At the same time they wanted everyone to realize how holy they were. They used their position in Jewish society to build themselves up in other peoples' eyes. They were certain they were so much better than Jesus who associated with common people. The pharisees were concerned with themselves not the vineyard.
The chief priests were leaders who used their position for temporal gain. They were not spiritual. They often walked the borderline between Jewish and pagan practices. But they were excellent at milking their position for every cent they could get.
That’s the background. Historical reflection on scripture is always interesting. Recognizing how this particular passage applies also to us is downright frightening.
We have been brought into the Kingdom, the vineyard, to produce fruit for the world. We have been called to do the work of the Father. It is a great honor. It is also a deep responsibility. We are responsible to God to carrying out the work of the Kingdom. We are responsible to feed the world the fruit of the Father’s Love. The Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world. The charity of the Church is fundamental to what the Church is. The Charitable Christian is not just a humanitarian. The Christian provides the fruit of God’s love to those who have needs throughout the world. He serves the Presence of Christ within the least of His People.
We have to be very careful that we don’t continue the mistakes of the chief priests. The chief priests were only concerned about monetary gain. We have seen this repeated in history, including in our modern times. Religion is big business and a great seller. Many people use their faith for business gains. Some professional people see membership in a Church as an important aspect in building up credibility in their profession. Of course, we have also come upon TV evangelists, Rolls Royce driving gurus and others who have milked their people out of every cent they could so they could live in luxury. Diocesan priests are given a set income no matter where we are stationed, but that hasn’t prevented some from finding ways to supplement their income by dipping into the till. All those who use the Church for their own financial gains will have to answer for this.
We also need to be extremely careful that we don’t repeat the sins of the pharisees. The pharisees started off well. They were concerned about serving God. That’s why Jesus told the people to learn from them. But then he told them not to do what they were doing. The pharisees were concerned that others treat them with great respect. Their pseudo-holiness was for their own self-glory, not for the glory of God. They didn't care for the vineyard; they cared for themselves. They loved their positions of esteem in the community. Therefore they were opposed to anyone who would question them, opposed even to the point of killing him. The vineyard was their claim to holiness. They did not want this Jesus, this person who associated with every day people, to manifest His true holiness, His true ownership of the vineyard. Therefore he had to be killed.
What we need to be careful of is seeing ourselves as better than others and therefore deserving particular respect. This can be as members of the Church in general, or it can be as members of a particular movement within the Church. We have been called to the Church to bring Christ to others. We have no right to put ourselves above others. We have been given the mercy and grace of God to serve His people. Without this mercy and Grace, we are nothing. That’s the definition of a sinful life, nothingness. Perhaps we might have been attracted to a particular movement within the Church to strengthen our spirituality. We may be members of Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, various cenacles like Divine Mercy, or, among our Teens, members of Life Teen. These various spiritual experiences are given to us to help us to grow. But if we think that we are better than others because we are in Cursillo or Life Teen, or that our marriage is better than others because we are active in Marriage Encounter, then we are looking down on others and acting no differently than the pharisees. People who are so full of themselves and their own spirituality are not all that different than the pharisees in the parable. That’s why so many of the unchurched will say, “I don’t go to Church because it is full of hypocrites.” (Of course, my standard response to that is, “Come anyway, one more won’t hurt.)
I can remember reading C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters when I was in high school. In this fantasy, a devil, Uncle Screwtape, was educating his nephew, Wormwood, in the art of destroying a Christian Church. He told him to forget about possessing people and just concentrate on tempting people to think that they are better than others.
We have been entrusted with the vineyard to bear fruit for others. It is a great honor. It is also a great responsibility. We need God’s help to fight against the devastation occasioned by seeking material gains or human glory.
May the God protect us from killing the presence of the Son in his own Father's vineyard.