by Br Ian McDonald cfc

“Yes, God’s vineyard is the House of Israel, and the people of Judah that chosen plant.”  Isaiah 5: 1-7

“I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”  Matthew 21: 33-43

The parable Jesus presented in today’s gospel-reading presents us in these days with a considerable challenge because of the prevalence of violence in it. That can trap us into the role of observers of the unrestrained violence at large in our contemporary world with the accompanying temptation to set about analysing the causes of such violence. A second trap about this parable is to allow ourselves to be drawn into thinking only that it is an allegory of the way in which Jesus, the Son of God was tortured and murdered by those who showed no respect to either him or his Father. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus would not even contemplate telling a parable that even hinted that he was looking for sympathy for himself for the way in which he would eventually be treated by those who could not accept that he was the Messiah, God’s anointed.

Paul, well-versed as he was in the Jewish Scriptures, knew that, while Scripture was meant for study and analysis, it was intended for application to and integration into our day-to-day living. In today’s second reading, we hear him making that very point to the members of the Christian community in Philippi. And that’s the relevance of that reading for us, too. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews made the same point in stating: “The word of God is alive and active…nothing or nobody is impervious to it.” (Hebrews 4: 12)

In today’s gospel-reading, we see Jesus doing exactly the same by taking a parable from the prophet Isaiah and pointing out its relevance to the lives of the people who had gathered to listen to him. What then is the relevance of this parable for us today and how are we meant to be participants in it rather than mere observers of it?

To answer those questions, let’s begin with the parable which Jesus borrowed from Isaiah and adapted for the audience he was instructing. Isaiah presented his parable through the voice of a balladeer and then explained the song that the balladeer had sung. The song was about the dedication of a man who planted a vineyard and invested all his energy and care into developing it into the vineyard of his dreams. But his dreams were shattered when, despite all his tender care, the vines yielded only sour grapes. The vineyard owner could no longer hold out hope for his project and lost heart. The balladeer then stepped aside and invited the equivalent of a Greek chorus to interpret the parable in these words: “The treasured vineyard which belongs to the Lord of hosts is the House of Israel, and the people of Judah those chosen vines. The Lord of hosts expected a crop of justice but saw them murdering each other; expected a yield of integrity but heard only the moans of victims” (Isaiah 5: 7).

In today’s gospel-reading we learn how Jesus took Isaiah’s vineyard parable and reshaped it into the story of a landowner who leased his precious property to tenant farmers who then presumed that they could easily take ownership of the property by murdering the landowner’s servants and son.
Jesus, however, did not step into the role of the chorus in Isaiah’s parable. He left his audience to puzzle over its meaning. So long as we choose to interpret just who the tenants and servants represented, we will stay in the role of observers. How then might we apply Jesus’ parable to ourselves and take on the role of participants?

I would like to suggest that just as Jesus had adapted Isaiah’s parable to comment on how leaders of his day had failed to care for God’s treasured people of Israel, Pope Francis has taken Jesus’ parable and applied it to us, challenging us to look at our failure to act responsibly in our role of stewardship of the earth that has been entrusted to our care. In Laudato Si, his encyclical letter of 2015, Francis left us in no doubt that we have failed in our responsibility to care for our “common home” the earth, the treasured vineyard which God has entrusted to us. From its opening paragraphs, Laudato Si confronts us with both criticism of our failure and challenge to right our errant behaviour. We cannot escape the label of negligent tenants who have failed to be accountable for the sacred trust placed in us. Pope Francis has named us for the arrogance we have exhibited when he describes the treatment we have meted out to the Earth: “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water and in all forms of life” (Laudato Si #2)

Having published Laudato Si in May 2015, Pope Francis proceed in September of that same year to call us all to participate in a “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation”, echoing some of Paul’s sentiments expressed in today’s second reading: “There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need , pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 6-7).

Over centuries, prophets filled the role of servants of God calling the people of Israel and their leaders to live up to the responsibilities they had been given. Many of those prophets were ridiculed and beaten. Jesus was at the end of a long line of prophets but, despite the treatment meted out to him, was successful in ushering in the kingdom of God. Pope Francis is a modern-day prophet calling us all to conversion of heart, the very first step required of us if we are to assume our responsibility in actively caring for our common home. We cannot be participants in today’s readings and remain unchanged. Up to us, then, to decide what our tenancy role responsibilities will look like and to act on them.