by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruits.” Matthew 21, 33-43
In reading today’s gospel (and the gospel readings taken from Matthew over the next few weeks) it’s important to remember that they are reflections on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, during which his conflict with the Jewish leaders reached boiling point. In today’s parable of the vineyard owner and the rebellious tenants to whom he had leased it, Jesus identifies himself as yet another prophet who has been rejected by Israel. He goes even further, indicating that he is the son of the vineyard owner (God) who will be done to death by tenants whose uncontrolled desire for greed, power and status delude them into thinking that his death will deliver to them all they want. The risk in reading the parable only in this way is that we can use it to point the finger of blame at people in leadership, and forget that there is a message in the parable for us, too. As an indirect way into exploring this parable, I share a Sufi story with which, almost forty-four years ago, the Dutch-born theologian and writer, Henri Nouwen began a public lecture entitled Compassion: The Core of Spiritual Leadership:
Once upon a time, there was a man who strayed from his own country into the world known as the Land of Fools. He soon saw a number of people flying in terror from a field where they had been trying to reap wheat. “There is a monster in that field,” they told him. He looked and saw that it was a watermelon.
He offered to kill the “monster” for them. When he had cut the melon from its stalk, he took a slice and began to eat it. The people became even more terrified of him than they had been of the melon. They drove him away with pitchforks crying, “He will kill us next, unless we get rid of him.”
It so happened that at another time another man also strayed into the Land of Fools, and the same thing started to happen to him. But, instead of offering to help them with the “monster,” he agreed with them that it must be dangerous and by tiptoeing away from it with them he gained their confidence. He spent a long time with them in their houses until he could teach them, little by little, the basic facts which would enable them not only to lose their fear of melons, but even to cultivate them themselves. (If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, Palo Alto: Science & Behavior Books, Inc., 1972, p.8)
Nouwen went on to say: “This beautiful story tells us better than any essay the crucial difference between someone without compassion and someone with compassion. We know too well how great our temptation is to laugh at the fools who do not understand and to create hatred by cutting melons from their stalk. We also know that it is our hard but urgent vocation to become fools with the fools, to live in their land helping them with gentle patience to convert their fears into new expectations. That is the Christian vocation to compassion. It is the vocation to have the mind of our Lord Jesus Christ, who ‘did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as we are’ (Philippians 2:6-7).
Compassion is core to a spiritual life, and three questions need our special attention. The first question is: how does compassion manifest itself? The answer is: in solidarity. The second question is: how is compassion disciplined? The answer is: by voluntary displacement. The third question is: how is compassion lived out in the light of the gospel? The answer is: in discipleship. Compassion manifests itself in solidarity, is disciplined by voluntary displacement and is lived out in discipleship. I hope to discover some clues about how to avoid becoming unwise melon hunters!” (The Core of Spiritual Leadership, Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical Leadership and Cultural Research, Occasional Paper No. 2, published March 1977) “Voluntary displacement” is an unusual concept meaning stepping away from our society’s expectations on us to shine as individuals and, instead, to accept that we are as ordinary and as broken as everyone around us. Voluntarily adopting that attitude opens the way for us all to be truly compassionate.
In the person of Jesus, God entered fully into human experience, living our life and embracing the challenges, distress and fear that touch us all. In so doing, Jesus taught us how to transform our lives and live in the love God extends to us. Today’s parable illustrates that faith in God is not some kind of gift given only to self-appointed people of privilege. Nor is it a weapon of the powerful for imposing on others an arbitrary catalogue of dos and don’ts. Rather, faith is an awareness that God is present to us, accompanying us along every step of life’s journey. The only authentic response to that is gratitude.
But how does today’s parable translate to our lives in our contemporary circumstances? Every single parable that Jesus told was designed to disturb the comfort of those who were present. In similar measure, they are an invitation for us to join as participants. We are tenants of a world to which Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, refers as “our common home”. An integral dimension of our vocation as Christians is to be stewards of the earth, of the vineyard that has been entrusted to our care. Even a cursory glance over recent decades of our history is sufficient to demonstrate that many of us allowed those around us with power and money to exploit the vineyard for which we all have a responsibility to nurture and care. If we are not directly implicated in abusing our “sister Earth” (Laudato Si, #2) our silence is a sin of omission. In the concluding chapter of his encyclical, Pope Francis states: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” (Laudato Si, Ch. 6, #217) I conclude with Pope Francis’ prayer of compassion for the earth and its people:
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace. Amen