Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Wicked Laborers, St. Francis & Us
What were they thinking? How did the tenant farmers ever get it into their minds that they had the right to keep the grapes and vineyards that they did not own? How could they justify killing the owner’s servants and then his son?
To understand this Sunday’s parable, we need to consider the situation back in the time of Our Lord. Very often farms and vineyards were owned by foreigners or by wealthy Israelites who lived a great distance away, usually in foreign countries. By taking over the farm or vineyard for themselves, the workmen would actually be part of a rebellion against foreign powers or against Jewish people who had given themselves over to foreign powers. In addition to this a Jewish law read that if a landowner died without an heir, his property would become the possession of whoever grabbed it first, in the case of the parable, the workmen.
Basing himself on Isaiah 5, our first reading, Jesus tells the people that the vineyard is the people of Israel. The vineyard in Isaiah 5 is cut down because the people of Israel have not been faithful to their God. The vineyard in the parable from the Gospel of Matthew is a source of turmoil because the workmen have been keeping the fruit for themselves. The workmen here are the elders and leaders of the Jewish people. They were more concerned with themselves than with the work of God’s kingdom.
Jesus came at a very inopportune time for the Jewish leaders. Politically, these leaders were winning concessions from Rome that would keep them in power. Financially, the leaders of the people were afraid that they would be thrown into poverty if they lost their position. To the leaders of the Jewish people, this was not a good time for a Messiah.
But the world was waiting. God was ready. The timing was really perfect. The extent of the Roman Empire, the way that Rome interlocked culture, economics and military conquest, made the timing perfect to spread the Gospel.
Eight hundred years ago a man was born who embraced the attitude of bearing fruit for God so completely that he reformed the entire Church. His influence is still felt. This man, whose feast we celebrated last Wednesday is St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most popular saint this side of the Apostolic Era. Francis recognized early in his life that concern about power, position and finances could lead a person to act like the wicked vine dressers. At the time of his radical conversion to Christ, Francis was about to inherit his father’s position and power. His friends told him that the time was not right for him to turn so completely to God. He should wait until he was well established, then he could be generous to charity. But Francis heard a call for immediate action. He could see himself embracing a life of sin if he didn’t listen to this call. He decided to concentrate all his energy on bearing fruit for God. So before the civil authorities and in the presence of his father, he renounced all his possessions and embraced a life of bearing fruit for God. In his poverty Francis became the richest man in the world, calling the sun his brother and the moon his sister. In many ways, St. Francis of Assisi was a Christian romantic, excited by the true meaning of following Christ.
It was clear to Francis that timing was everything, providing the timing was the Lord’s time, not his. This has to be clear to us also. The call to follow the Lord comes when God chooses, not when we choose.
Vintage time is upon us. The owner of the vineyard is looking for the results of our labor. Are we to beat him off and go on with our lives as though we own the vineyard? Or can we have the courage to put the Lord and his Kingdom first in our lives and in our world?
We come to Church seeking the courage to be the Lord’s laborers in his vineyard.