So, I just wanted to take this moment before I begin my homily to admit to you…this is not the best homily I’ve ever produced. To be honest, I was rather distracted this past week, and wasted to much time watching some baseball game on Wednesday…so you’ll have to forgive me.
I’ve always thought that vineyards are beautiful and amazing places. When I was in the seminary, I had the opportunity to go to Germany in 2005 for World Youth Day. And while we were there, our group had a chance to do some sightseeing. Germany is filled with beautiful places and atmospheres,but one that sticks in my mind was the morning we spent in the town of Rhudesheim. Rhudesheim is a beautiful little medieval town that sits on the banks of the Rhine River in Germany, and one of the most beautiful things about it, in addition to the wonderful church and a magnificent statue commemorating German unification, is the fact that it is surrounded by vineyards. Rows and rows of grape vines and greenery cover the hills around this small German town. It was beautiful! What a privilege to be there, but what a privilege also to be entrusted with such beauty! What an honor it would be to have the opportunity to make the vineyard even more beautiful than it already is!
Today Jesus uses the beauty of the vineyard as well, and he draws on the ancient imagery of the vineyard of Israel that we heard from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, our first reading. He explains that someone plants a vineyard, which represents the House of Israel, just as it did in Isaiah. But in that vineyard, he adds a few things to make it better. There is a hedge, which provides beauty and fruitfulness. There is a winepress, which increases the productivity of the vineyard. And there is a large tower in the center of the vineyard, which assures everyone working and living there that they are being cared for and protected. But then the landowner goes off on a journey – to the Bahamas or something, I don’t know – and he gives the vineyard to tenants to look after. These tenants were given the opportunity to use the land for their own purposes, but they were also given the responsibility to give some return to the vineyard owner on his return. That’s a real privilege, but a real responsibility as well! But of course, these tenants don’t provide much fruit. They had either taken all the fruit of the vineyard and selfishly kept it for themselves, or they had failed to produce much of anything. Whatever the case, the tenants didn’t come through on their responsibility to give some return to the landowner.
Now, I think when many of us read this story in the Gospel, we focus on the end result – that statement that the wicked tenants should be thrown out and killed, just as they had done to the landowner’s son. But what we’re really supposed to get out of this, what we should be thinking about is the landowner’s generosity. He sees that his first messengers or servants that he had sent are rejected, beaten up, killed, etc. But rather than coming in with the army like many of us would have done, and which the landowner could have done justly, he simply hopes for the best and sends more. But these servants are beaten up, stoned, and killed as well. Ultimately, the landowner decides to send his son. But he doesn’t do this to exert his authority, but he does so as a statement of trust in the tenants, that they would take care of his beloved son. It is a statement of hope that these tenants would turn from their ways and reconcile with the landowner. But the tenants do not, and so Jesus asks the opinion of the scribes and priests what to do with the evil tenants, and by their own words, the leaders condemn themselves.
So what do we get out of this parable? What is the meaning for us? Well first of all, this is a parable of the story of our salvation. Time and time again throughout the Old Testament, God sent the prophets to teach the nation of Israel His ways and to redirect them to the ways of right living, free from corruption and sin. But time and time again, Israel rejected these prophets, beating them, stoning them, and in some cases, killing them. And so, ultimately, God sent his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who is likewise rejected, and literally dragged out of the vineyard of Jerusalem, nailed to a cross, and killed. God is the good landowner, who hopes and trusts in Israel’s tenants, the priests and scribes, but when they fail to produce a fruitful return, He chooses to give leadership of the vineyard to new tenants, the Church.
But this message is also for us. It is a call to be good stewards of the vineyard of the Church that God has entrusted to us. It is a reminder that we are given the huge responsibility to be stewards, tenants of the Church. We have the opportunity and the privilege, like those tenants, to produce a fruitful return and to make the Church even more beautiful than it already is. We watch, we tend, we keep guard of the vineyard, but in the back of our minds, we have to know that we are not the owners. We are tenants and stewards, but not the landowners. Our lives, our minds, our creativity, our talents are all gifts to us from God, and we have the responsibility and privilege to use them to produce a return for the praise and glory of God. In fact, the spiritual life at its heart points to the fact that our lives are not about us. We’ve been given them for God’s purposes.
God continues to send servant after servant, giving his message and calling us to be good tenants in the vineyard. He does this through the example of the saints. He does this through the words of our Holy Father and the bishops. He does this through the homilies of our priests (heaven help us!) and our liturgy. He does this through the words and actions of those seeking to spread the Gospel in their work, whether through the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, Room at the Inn, or the faith formation programs at our parish. And he does this through the example of the poor and downtrodden, who hold strong to their faith and by their example call us to be servants. But the question we must ask ourselves as tenants in the vineyard of the Church, my brothers and sisters, is whether we hear what these messengers have to say. Do we listen, or do we reject them? The ultimate moral of the story this week is that we don’t want to be like the tenants! They were shown limitless mercy by the landowner, as we are every day, but they chose to reject that mercy.
The question for us to meditate on today is what kind of tenants are we in the vineyard of the Church? What kind of fruit do we produce for God, the landowner? How do we respond to the voices of God’s messengers that call us to something greater? What are those areas in our own lives that need conversion? May we be given the grace to be good and faithful tenants in the vineyard, and to bear much fruit.