Are we willing laborers for the Lord?
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Autumn is the time of vintage: the time to harvest grapes, so they can be pressed, the juice fermented and stored, and in time, drunk as wine, hopefully to cheer men’s hearts. We’ve heard about laborers in the vineyard (two weeks ago), and those who do the will of the Father, or don’t (last week), both of which help us to appreciate the urgency and timeliness of today’s Gospel.
The vineyard refers to the time and place of the Lord’s domain, constituted by God’s covenant with His People, whether called Israel (as in Isaiah), or the Church. As a part of nature, the vineyard has its own cycles and rhythms of life and death, of growth, harvest and decay. These are independent of the laborers, who, when wise and attending to these realities, recognize the “laws of nature,” so as to cooperate with them to produce a greater harvest, or to thwart them when they introduce a menace to the harvest. The vineyard, therefore, is not only the work of God, which would simply be “nature,” but rather a work that God freely shares with man; hence, it is a garden. Man assists nature in realizing its potential to be fruitful and, thereby, to glorify God.
The vineyard is not, therefore, a wilderness, but rather an expression of the possibility of man’s creative and positive contribution to nature’s own purpose. Left to its own devices, nature, under the bondage of sin, can be capricious as well as life-giving, fruitful as well as death-bringing. For this reason, the beauty and bounty of nature does not lead Christians to indulge in a self-hating dream that the world would be a better place without human beings, as is sometimes witnessed in radical environmentalism. Neither man nor nature is the source of the world’s problem: sin is. And just as nature can be capricious and life-giving, fruitful and death-bringing, so too human beings can live beneath their dignity as bearers of the image of the Trinitarian God; we can reject the “rules of the vineyard,” which shelter and sustain life, and embrace envy and egotism, which leads ultimately to violence and bloodshed.
The vineyard is a place of life only as long as the laborers choose life and respect its ways of flourishing. In Isaiah’s parable, despite the best efforts of the vintner, his loving care of the vines and their environment, they nevertheless produced wild grapes. The Hebrew for “wild grapes”, beushim, connotes grapes that are “stinking and worthless,” judging them as useless and unpleasant. The vintner had every reason to expect good fruit, because he established the vineyard as a time and place in which the vines would flourish, and for this reason, later, the wine would flow (which alludes to next Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 25 about the messianic banquet).
Our Lord’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel retells this story in much starker terms. Rather than vines and wild grapes, which stink and are useless, this story speaks of human beings and wicked deeds, of violence, murder and theft. We have moved out of metaphors into human realities because, of course, this parable captures the dire circumstance in which Jesus found himself at the end of his ministry.
Israel was God’s vineyard, specially chosen and elected; so, too, Jesus’ antagonists—namely, the chief priests (literally, “ruling priests”, because Israel had not king at the time) and the elders of the people—represent those chosen and elected who were entrusted with the task of safeguarding Israel’s relationship with God. They were to do this by “living in the vineyard” through covenant fidelity, “the rules of the vineyard.”
In the parable, Jesus recounts the history of God’s relationship with Israel in which, time and again, the rulers of Israel (all of whom were part of God’s plan, as laid out in the Pentateuch) maltreated, rejected and even killed the prophets. In terms of the parable, the servants represent the prophets, and the produce for which they have been sent to collect is the fulfillment of Israel’s vocation as light to the nations. God’s covenant aimed to transform Israel into a reflection of His glory; this was the produce for which God hoped. Israel’s covenant fidelity would attract the human race to God because the vineyard would be a place of abundant life, mercy, healing and goodness.
Yet even those who were called to this noble vocation found it difficult, falling instead under the sway of envy and selfishness. This comes out in the parable by their plan to murder the son so as to steal his inheritance. The vineyard would become theirs and they could rule it according to their own designs. Their action, of course, would ultimately lead to their doom, as sin carries with it its own punishment.
The parable, therefore, alludes to the event that would shortly transpire, to Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion. He was the son to be killed by the tenants. Having lost sight of their divine mission, succumbing to the desire to be like their neighbors, and therefore, judging according to worldly calculations, much of Israel failed to perceive that Jesus was the definitive visitation of the Lord.
As Christians, we may not take delight in this tragic failure because the same temptation stands before us always, and many succumb to the desire to become like their neighbors. We too are tempted to conform ourselves to the world and the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist, rather than remain loyal to the covenant that Our Lord established with His Father on our behalf, in which we now stand—“living in the vineyard”—thanks to our baptism. Some Catholics, however, find the “rules of vineyard” burdensome. We are reminded of those who resented having to work in the vineyard the whole day for the same wage two weeks ago, and would prefer to change or eliminate them.
Rather than repentance and conversion – like the son from last week’s Gospel, who said “no” but then turned back to do his Father’s work – they would reject the revelations about the “rules of the vineyard” from the prophets and the Son in favor of seizing the vineyard and ruling over it according to their own designs. This week’s first reading and the Gospel make clear, however, that this option is not viable, because to reject the “rules of the vineyard” does not lead to liberation, but to destruction.
This contemporary frustration with the “rules of the vineyard” discloses more than a desire to be like one’s neighbors, but also a doubt about God’s plan for us beyond this life. Rather than expecting autumn to pass to winter and then to a new spring, this unwillingness to labor in the vineyard the whole day to produce good grapes suggests a loss of hope that one day we will be seated at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, where we shall drink of the new wine in the New Creation—God’s vineyard transformed, where labor will give to play, and joy will never end. This is God’s dream for us. St. Paul suggests a remedy to this doubt: we ought to think often of these things as they are—true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise.
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