I never knew that wine is produced in the state of Ohio. One day we were driving to a winery to pick up wine for a special community dinner. We spoke with the owner who, in answering our questions about wine production, stressed how difficult and demanding the work of the vineyard is. I had no clue.
The son in the parable who refuses to go into the vineyard (Mt 21:28-32) seems aware of that. But then he becomes aware of something even greater.
What the vineyard symbolizes
This hesitation, this stalling of the son we understand well. For we too can be inconstant. We fail at times to follow through, we waver. The thought of the vineyard hinders us. The vineyard is the drudgery in my life, the thing I dread, the loathsome challenge. Even more — it’s the area where I need the most growth … where I can feel the issue I have to fix but which I would rather ignore. It’s daunting. The vineyard is the reminder that there is yet much work to be done in me. Yet I opt for hedging over healing.
My wobbling is an effect of original sin. But no matter how vacillating we may be, there is something much greater still at work within the image of God that each of us is. It moves us to see the vineyard as an arena promising the great growth we need. We sense it to be a matrix of maturity and personal fruitfulness — where I can become myself.
God says to the mystic St. Catherine of Siena:
You know that eternal Truth created us in his own image and likeness. He made us as his vineyard where he wants to dwell by grace, if it pleases the worker of this vineyard to cultivate it rightly and well. In the center of the vineyard the Master has put a jug: the heart, filled with blood to irrigate the plants so they will not wither. Each of you has your own vineyard, your soul, in which your free will is the appointed worker during this life. I long to see you as true workers in the vineyards of your souls, so that at harvest time you may bring in abundant fruit.
I will go: holy obedience
Against his own obstinacy and resistance, the son who initially refused changes his mind and goes to the vineyard. Perhaps he senses how untrue he is being to himself — to his very meaning and purpose. St. Augustine says that “weak people are those who appear to be zealous in doing good works but are unwilling or unable to endure the sufferings that threaten.” And maybe the refusing son does not want to be like that.
His decision to go to the vineyard is an act of obedience. Obedience is not slavery. Obedience is a loving surrender to Another who enables me to be myself. “Obedience,” instructs St. Gregory the Great, “is the way that we overcome ourselves in our heart.” Without the Father’s invitation to obedience, we would never be able to overcome the false self, and then the hope for happiness would be forever impossible.
This is why Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa stresses that “Gospel obedience is not so much about submissionas it is about likeness.” Likeness to the image of God we are created to be … but a likeness that — owing to the effects of original sin — must constantly be renewed and perfected. That is the work of the life of faith.
Even little children recognize the logic of it. Look at the wondrous way Franco Zeffirelli depicts the telling of this parable in his film Jesus of Nazareth:
FOMO and the Father
Maybe for the vacillating son a kind of FOMO kicks in: Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO, says the internet, is the feeling of apprehension that one is either not in the know about or missing out on information, events, experiences, or life decisions that could make one’s life better. FOMO is also associated with a fear of regret.
Pope Benedict XVI helps us understand what may have been going through the son’s mind:
The word “father” makes me sure of one thing: I do not come from myself; I am a child. I am tempted at first to protest against this reminder. I want to be “emancipated,” my own master. But then I ask myself: What is the alternative for me if I no longer have a father, if I have left my state as child definitively behind me? What have I gained thereby? Am I really free? No, I am free only when there is a principle of freedom, when there is someone who loves and whose love is strong. Ultimately, then, I have no alternative but to turn back again, to say “Father,” and in that way to gain access to freedom by acknowledging the truth about myself.
The son goes to the vineyard because that is where the father is. And “by the background radiation of a father’s presence,” writes Catholic journalist John Waters, “a father lets his children become themselves. A father is one who leaves spaces for the competences of his children to grow.”
We change our mind and go into the vineyard so that there we can experience “the radiation of fatherhood”: “One must enter the radiation of fatherhood, since only there does everything become fully real” (Pope Saint John Paul II).
And follow his series of brief reflections on prayer here.