It must be time for grapes to be harvested. We’ve heard about vineyards in the readings at Mass for the last three Sundays. A fortnight ago we heard Our Lord’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard; last week the parable of the two sons who were asked to work in their father’s vineyard; and today we hear the parable of the wicked tenants.
Today’s gospel connects well with the first reading from the prophet Isaiah in which a vineyard is cared for, but doesn’t produce fruit, so it is destroyed. In the gospel, it’s not the vineyard that is bad, but its tenants who abuse and kill the owner’s servants and ultimately kill the owner’s one and only son and heir. These wicked tenants will be removed and punished so that someone more trustworthy may care for the vineyard properly.
The vineyard is an image of 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, deceive, steal and even kill in order to bolster their own reputations. They use the vineyard for their own selfish purposes instead of caring for it.
This parable answers the question of the ancient Jewish world: if Jesus is really the Messiah, the Christ, why is it that non-Jews, Gentiles have flocked to him, while the chosen people, the Jews, have not? The answer is that the leaders of the people had become mean-spirited and even corrupt. This should come as no surprise: Our Lord tells us in the parable: 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. Calvary was just outside the City of Jerusalem.
Throughout the parable Our Lord makes a direct attack on the chief priests and leaders of the people. These men are not concerned with caring for God’s people. They are concerned only with themselves. The Pharisees treated ordinary men and women like dirt. Everyday people weren’t holy enough for them. And yet 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 convinced they were so much better than Jesus who associated with the common people, the rabble.
The chief priests also used their position for temporal gain. They often walked the borderline between Jewish and pagan practices. But they were excellent at milking their position for every penny they could get.
In a nutshell, that’s the background to today’s gospel passage. Recognising how this particular passage applies also to us should give us cause for thought, if not concern.
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: Opus Dei. We consider this to be a great honour; but it is also a grave responsibility. We are responsible to God for carrying out the work of the Kingdom. It’s our duty to feed the world with 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, not only at home, but throughout the world. The Charitable Christian serves the Presence of Christ within the least of His people.
More than two thousand years down the road we need to be careful that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees. Now, the Pharisees started off well, their first concern was about serving God. That’s why Our Lord told the people to learn from them. But he also told them not to do what they were doing. The Pharisees were concerned that others treat them with great respect. Their pretend holiness was for their own self-glory and not for the glory of God. They didn’t care for the vineyard; they cared only for themselves. They loved their positions of esteem in the community, and this is why they were opposed to anyone who would question them, or challenge them, and they opposed such people even to the point of killing them. The vineyard was their domain and it was their claim to holiness. They didn’t want Our Lord, who associated with everyday people, to manifest His true holiness, His true ownership of the vineyard, and for this reason 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. By virtue of our Confirmation, it is our duty to bring Christ to others, and that should be our one and only concern. We have no right to put ourselves above others. We have been given the mercy and grace of God to serve His people. And without this mercy and grace, we are nothing. Perhaps we might have been attracted to a particular movement within the Church to strengthen our own spirituality; and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if we think that we are better than others because we are on the pastoral council, or we run a group in the parish or hold some position of trust, 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 who were condemned by Our Lord at every turn. And I think that’s why so many lapsed Catholics say: “I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.” My standard response to that has always been: “Come anyway, one more won’t hurt.
The first Christian book I ever read was C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. It’s a fantasy in which a devil, Uncle Screwtape, educates his nephew Wormwood, in the art of destroying the Church. Screwtape told him to forget all about possessing people and just concentrate on tempting people to think that they are better than others.
We have been entrusted as stewards of the vineyard in order to bear fruit for others. This is a great honour and it is also a great responsibility. We need God’s help to continually resist the temptation to seek material gains or human glory.
May God always protect us from killing the presence of the Son in his own Father’s vineyard.