GOD’S TREMENDOUS LOVE AND MAN’S INGRATITUDE
Is 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Matt 21:33-43
Anyone who has a business that involves allowing someone else to use what you own, such as those who rent out land, equipment, automobiles (cars, motor bikes, etc.), and places of residence, will tell you that it can be a tricky prospect. They will tell you that you would be amazed at the disregard that people often show toward things that do not belong to them. Hotel rooms are routinely trashed, rental cars will be driven on the worst of roads, things will be broken, items will be stolen, and apartments will be left filled with garbage. And, of course, this is in addition to those who just do not pay their bills!
Our parable of today shows us that these kinds of behaviours are not new. Jesus tells us about a man who planted a vineyard and hired some caretakers. When it came time to collect the rent the caretakers not only refused to pay, they tried to claim the vineyard as their own. You may know, or must have heard, of some ‘bush fallers’ who have sent money home, to Africa, for some project to be executed for them. At their return, they are stunned to discover that their family member(s) and/or trusted friend did not only mismanage the money; they are even offended that the owner called them to question for mishandling their hard-earned money.
1. BACKGROUND TO THE PARABLE
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, tells the chief priests and elders a parable taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which we in our first reading (Is 5:1-7). It is a rather obvious reference to the Jewish people, which Jesus’ audience fully understood. He refers to the numerous times, since the very first covenant between God and Abraham, that the Chosen people have turned away from God to sin. Time after time, Moses and all the Prophets called the Jewish nation back to God. They called on them to repent and mend their ways. But again and again, they fell back into their sinful ways. Then God, just like the owner of the vineyard, sent his Son, Jesus, hoping that they would “respect my son”. But Jesus knows that he will suffer the same fate as the son of the vineyard owner: death.
Thus, Jesus then asks his audience what they think will happen to the murderers. They give the right answer: “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death.” But they still do not understand where he is getting to. They are the wretched men! They are the ones who are rejecting the Son of God. Jesus says, “Didn’t you ever read scripture?” “Don’t you get it?” Jesus is the cornerstone being rejected by the builders, the Chosen people of the House of Israel. He concludes by telling them that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the House of Israel and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
The characters in this parable are pretty self-evident. The Landowner represents God. The Vineyard is Israel. The workers or caretakers of the vineyard would be the Religious Leaders. The messengers sent from the owner represent the Prophets. The Son, of course, represents Jesus. By talking about handing the vineyard to “other people who will produce fruit”, Jesus is talking about us –Christians. By our Baptism into Christ, we have become the Chosen people, the People of God. Jesus created a new covenant between humanity and God through himself. By our Baptism we become sons and daughters of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus and heirs to the Kingdom of God. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God calls all people to himself. He pours out his love and favour on all. All that he asks in return is that we open our hearts to receive that Divine love and grace. This parable drives home the basic message of God’s tremendous love for us, and our ingratitude and hardness of heart.
2. GOD’S PROVIDENCE
This parable reveals God’s providence to us. “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower” (Matt 21:33a). The owner gives what belongs to him (ready-made) to these tenants to enjoy, to have a pretty good life, and also bring a good harvest. What is true of Israel, is also true for you and me. Before God entrusts a responsibility to us, he makes provision for all that we will need in carrying out that responsibility. He gives us life and provisions for that life. He gives us all that is needed for a life of joy and fulfillment on earth and in heaven.
Next, God “leased it to tenants and went to another country” (Mtt 21:33b). This shows God’s TRUST in us. God does not stand looking over our shoulders, policing us to make sure we do the right thing. God leaves the job to us and “goes on vacation to a far country”, as it were. God trusts that we will do the right thing. It is up to us whether we will cherish these gifts or complain about them; USE these gifts or AB-use them (“ab” is the Latin for “away”; “ABUSE” means using something away from the real use; ‘using’ for the wrong purpose). But unfortunately, many of us fail to do the right thing.
Through his providence, God’s PATIENCE with us is also highlighted. God sends messenger after messenger (preachers, pastors, parents, friends, elders, people of goodwill, etc.) to the rebellious managers who would not render to God what is his due. With each messenger, God provides another chance for us to put an end to rebellion and do the right thing. Finally, there comes a last chance. God plays his trump card and sends his only son. If we miss this last opportunity, then we have missed it all!
In the end we see God’s JUDGMENT in which rebellious humanity loses its beautiful opportunities, and the privileges are transferred to others who are more promising. In the end, in today’s gospel, the master of the vineyard takes the vineyard from the tenants and gives it to others. We must not forget that God is also JUST. On the day of reckoning, we shall be answerable for the way in which we have carried out the tasks God that gives us to do. God does not condone dishonesty and lack of accountability. The picture is that of a providing, trusting, patient, but also just God.
4. GOD’S GRACE AND HUMAN PRIVILEGE
From this parable, we can learn a lot about ourselves and how we stand in relation to God. First, we see human PRIVILEGE. Like the managers of the vineyard, everything we have is a privilege and not a MERIT. This is what we mean when we say that everything is God’s GRACE. Grace is unmerited favour. Another word for this is privilege. Life itself is a privilege which can be taken away from any of us at any time. Privilege comes, however, with RESPONSIBILITY. We are ultimately responsible and accountable to God for the way we use or AB-use our God-given privileges. God has given us all that we need to make a judicious use of all our privileges, yet we retain the ability to abuse it. This is called FREEDOM. The Parable of the Tenants, as it is called, is also a parable on the misuse of human freedom. Think of all the many privileges and opportunities that God gives us, and imagine how we have used them. What a wastage!
5. A FEW LIFE LESSONS:
a) Scripture, at various times, pictures God with a broken heart. Theologians debate on how “emotional” God is, but the fact remains that God is depicted as hurt by the actions of his people on several occasions. He does not change because of the hurt or strike back because of the hurt, but it does seem God can be offended by our actions. God truly takes offense by our bad action.
b) We must never forget that we are workers in God’s field, not vice versa. He is Lord, not me; not you! He calls the shots, not me; not you! He makes the rules, not me, not you! I must not think, feel, or act as if God does not know what he is doing. He is the King. He is the one who holds ALL the cards. We are stewards of God’s gifts.
c) God has not only created us, but has given us many gifts and blessings, and expects us then, to use these gifts and opportunities to grow and produce worthy fruits. What do we often bring forth? We produce bitter and sour fruits of hatred and jealousy; fruits of cheating and revenging, of infidelity and wickedness. We fail not just as individuals, but also as family, as Church, as nation. If our children do not see us praying, then there is little chance that they will pray. If our children overhear us telling lies very often, will they not immediately follow suit? If they observe us gossiping about our neighbours or committing other numerous faults, then we should not be surprised when they fall away from their faith. We are principally the evangelists of our children. God calls to bear the right fruits.
d) “When the Chief Priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” Because Jesus tells these religious leaders a dreaded truth, they are looking for ways to kill him. Often, people do not take it kindly when someone calls them to accountability. Some make utterances like: “I know you suspect me”; or “I know that you hate me!”; or “You don’t like my looks”, etc. In effect, they seem to be saying that rendering an account should never be called for. No! In everything we do, we must be ready to give an account. Those who lovingly seek to hold us accountable should be welcomed rather than attacked. God still sends us prophets, teachers, and others who are meant to “collect his rents”. These prophets may come in the form of the Words of Scripture. Or they may come in the form of trusted friend, teacher or family member. These people sometimes confront our sin; sometimes they ask very difficult questions; and sometimes they will make us mad. In Proverbs 27:6 we are told, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” A good friend will speak up when he/she sees you are headed in the wrong direction. Let us learn to take advice even when it is hurting to our pride!
d) Today, we are also reminded that there is only one way to be right with God. It is through God’s Son, Jesus. For he is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). “There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved”, (Phil 2:9-11) except the name of Jesus. Missing Jesus out in your life can have very grave consequences. If you are lost, Jesus is the way to find your way home. If you are broken, Jesus is the One who leads you to healing. Therefore, anything not built on the Lord is unstable and foolish. Jesus is the cornerstone or the capstone. If you are in good relationship with Christ, if you are following him, if you are aligning your life by him, then your life is on the right course.
e) This parable reminds us that time is short. The time to make the necessary changes in life is right now. We may intend to make the necessary changes “someday” later. But the longer we wait, the more we get off course. This parable reminds us that the time to realign our hearts with God is now. In this regard, one may need to do the following:
i. Maybe you need to dust off your Bible and get back to reading the scriptures daily.
ii. Maybe it is the moment for you to make time to pray (praying with/for your spouse, children, those who you once promised to pray for, for your country of origin, for you host country, etc.)
iii. Maybe you need to start taking your commitments seriously (e.g., paying back long-standing debts; apologizing to people whom we have once hurt and dumped; calling back home to talk to some family member whom we have turned our back to, etc.)
iv. Maybe you need to once again make worship a priority (attending Holy Mass, and other forms of worship more regularly)
v. Maybe you need to make a greater effort to earn the salary that we are payed (by doing real work).
vi. Maybe you need to begin that ministry or apostolate that God has laid on your shoulders, in your apostolic group or SCC.
The Alleluia Verse of today, sung before the proclamation of the Gospel, said: “I have chosen you from the world, says the Lord, to go and bear fruit that will remain”. In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul reminds us that the right fruits include: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable”. Let us pray today for the wisdom and the courage never to AB-use our privileges but rather to make a good use of all the freedom and opportunities that God gives us in order to bear the right fruits.