The readings for Mass in Ordinary Time are chosen so that the first reading from the Old Testament connects to the Gospel reading. Sometimes this connection can seem tenuous at best, but today it is not only clear but necessary. Everyone who heard this gospel would have known the “Song of the Vineyard” from our reading from Isaiah and understood its message. This included not only the original audience of the chief priests and other leaders of the Jewish people but also the Jewish Christians in Matthews audience who would have heard it since childhood and he gentile Christians for whom it would have been a key text in their Baptismal preparation.
You may find an analysis in greater depth in the Parish online commentary this week, but the basic point is unmistakable. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah are his cherished plant” (Is 5:7). The LORD intended his vineyard to produce fruit for all the Jewish people but the leaders had used it for their own purposes As the old Italian proverb says: “The fish stinks from head down” The vineyard could not be reformed but needed to be destroyed and then rebuilt.
Like last week, Jesus’ audience was the leaders of the Jewish people. The opening of this parable is obviously copied from the “Song of the Vineyard”, but Jesus has updated the references to reflect the agricultural situation of his day. The owners of estates often lived in cities but were supported by their lands in the countryside. The tenants were middlemen who ran the operation and would return much of the profits – fruits – to the owner. These tenants did not fulfill their responsibilities and indeed tried to steal the vineyard from him. He sent other agents and indeed his son to collect his portion, but they abused or even killed them.
The servants who were sent are clearly the prophets who as scripture showed were rarely honored and the son of course is Jesus who was seized, cast out of Jerusalem and killed. As with Isaiah and indeed last week’s gospel the leaders are asked what the owner should do? Their response: He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” (Mt 21:41)
These men were not fools, and “when (they) heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them”. (Mt 21:45)
Matthew makes it even more poignant: He quotes from Psalm 118:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
This psalm was sung as people entered the temple, and indeed may well have been sung when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It is important to remember that the temple was being rebuilt as Jesus is speaking and that the people who are listening to him are the people responsible for the rebuilding.
They, like the leaders berated by Isaiah, did not build justly and with concern for the people and the temple was destroyed less than half century after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. (Mt 21:43).
And so indeed it was. What would Matthew’s congregation have thought about this?
Certainly, that especially after the destruction of the temple that they could legitimately consider themselves among the people of God. They would have known as well that as with the original song the parable was not directed to the whole Jewish people but the leaders. This should have made the leaders in Matthew’s community very uncomfortable. They are being told that they will face the same fate if the church does not bear fruit.
What does this mean? The church bears fruit when it reflects the Kingdom of God. Harmony between God and Humanity of all people together and humanity and nature. We do not create the kingdom and it will be completed only when the Lord returns. It is however present here and now and we can seek to make it clearer. When there is mutual concern for everyone including the least and most marginalized of all the kingdom is present, this is good fruit. When people are treated as disposable the kingdom is far away and the fruit – such as it is – is rotten.
This is as true today as it was then. We are called to rebuild and refound our church and indeed our parish. What will be our cornerstone? It will be necessary to fund raise, it will be even more important to involve as many people as possible in ministries. We will need to focus on those activities which are the most fruitful and bring people together especially those which aid people who are most in need. This cannot be merely managerial. I warn you now that I will be back urging people to have individual meetings with each other so that we will at least know each other’s names.
Yesterday, Pope Francis issued an encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”. An encyclical is a letter from the Pope to the Church, and in this case the world, about an important topic. They are not infallible, and because the best of them speak to the issues of the day, can become dated. But they are like the Gospels: The Spirit addresses the issues of the day. It is over 75 pages of text and I have yet to read it. The only thing I know is that if it truly reflects the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching, I will not like it. It will challenge who or what I have made the cornerstone of my life, and I will resist.
But in that resisting, I will find myself with the leaders of Jerusalem in today’s Gospel, wishing to be blind but seeing far too clearly. However difficult it may be to hear, we do not accept intimacy with God unless we are willing to accept solidarity with our neighbor.