Fr John O’Callaghan OSB
Today’s gospel is a parable about God’s people and their leaders, before and after the coming of Christ. The Old Testament reading depicts a vineyard that has become rundown and unproductive. The scene Isaiah evokes is what you might see at this time of year in France, Italy or Spain – bare hills of ugly stumps and stalks where not long before there were abundant vines of red and green grapes. The dead stumps are crooked, narrow and easily broken, only good to be thrown on the fire. And Isaiah is saying that this is what God’s people have become, that they are like a barren field now. It is a powerful image.
The gospel picks up the same image but focuses exclusively on those
responsible for caring for the vineyard and making it produce fruit. These tenants refuse to pay rent to the owner and instead mistreat, grossly insult and even kill those trying to collect it. The tenants, we know, stand for the chief priests and Pharisees and, in the end, these leaders finally realise that the parable is about them. They are the ones who have not properly cared for God’s people, and it is they who will ultimately hand Jesus over for crucifixion. “They wanted to arrest Jesus [right then] but were afraid of the crowds who looked on him as a prophet.” As you know they had Jesus arrested and killed later!
Our parable condemns those leaders for their corrupt behaviour, saying that “the Kingdom of God will be taken from [them] and given to a people who will produce its fruit’, adding that ‘the stone rejected by the builders became the corner stone’. On Christ’s death and resurrection the church was founded. So our gospel is about regime change, changing the leadership of the people of God from chief priests & pharisees to Christ. We are thus to be made productive, and as delightful as a fertile vineyard. What does that change really involve?
First of all, recognising Christ as God-with-us, as confirmed by the prophecies and especially the resurrection. Christian faith is the great gift that illumines our lives and frees us from unbelief and its substitute, idolatry. Those who do not put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’ By faith we know there is always something greater than our own understanding. And Christian faith is trust in a love that holds us all in existence, and even enters into relation with each one of us, and gives our lives ultimate meaning.
Not content with smaller lights, faith is a light capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. It is by faith that we believers receive a new being and become sons and daughters of the living God, who is our Father. And faith leads on to hope. In the letter to the Ephesians St Paul reminds his readers that before their encounter with Christ they were’ without hope and without God in the world’. Of course he knew they had their pagan gods and religion but those gods had proven doubtful. They were in a dark world, facing a dark future. In a cemetery of the period there is a gravestone engraved with the words: ‘How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing’. But the distinguishing mark of a Christian is that we know the future is positive, is a victory of life over death. This gives us the courage to rise to the challenges that face us. It is the kind of confidence we all need. And our own individual lives do not end with a shovel full of clay but in the glory of the kingdom of God! Thirdly, love. Christians trust in a perfect, divine love, in its decisive power. We believe in a God who is so close to us that he entered our human history and is constantly guiding us towards Himself. This transforms us to live our lives in
this world with greater intensity, to become loving persons, in his image, ready for renunciation and willing even for sacrifice.
Faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these, says St Paul, is love. It is this we are called to live today, surrounded as we are by so many challenges. The first Christians were known for it; may we also be in our times!