Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 4, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:9, 12, 13-16, 19-20
Philippians 4:6-9
Matthew 21:33-43

We usually think of atheists as people who firmly do not believe in God.  Father Thomas Halik, a Czech priest and author offers a different consideration, “Atheists are people who cannot be patient enough to wait for God.”  I think that this is an apt description of many of us, even those who are formal believers but who live life as if they do not really believe in God. I think that it also offers us an entrance into a reflection on today’s readings.

The parable is about an absentee landlord and owner of a vineyard who lives in a different place. This was not an uncommon experience for peasants of Galilee. The owner rents the vineyard to tenant farmers or sharecroppers who work the land for a percentage of the crop.  The owner sends agents on a regular basis to collect what is due. What is left for the tenant farmers is probably less than 20 percent of the yield; barely enough to support their families. As a result, the tenants are frustrated, desperate, and driven to violence. They beat and kill several delegations from the owner. When the son arrives, they miscalculate and presume that by killing him they will inherit the vineyard. The plan is wrong, but they are hopeless.

Several lessons could be drawn from the parable depending on whom the intended audience is. If Jesus directs it against the rich and powerful, it may be a warning against exploiting the less fortunate. If it is directed to those who are in hopeless situations, it may be advice to persevere in the struggle for justice. Both elements are present for us who hear the parable.

The tenant farmers habituate a life of autonomy in the vineyard; their stewardship of the vineyard has become a false claim to ownership of it. They have grown impatient waiting for him. The owner reminds them the vineyard and the yield of the vineyard are rightfully His by sending the messengers who speak the words that call the tenant farmers to patient accountability. The tenant farmers first reject the owner’s message, then they reject the owner’s messengers, and then they reject the owner’s son. They attack, beat, and even kill them. They have grown accustomed to living their lives in the vineyard as if they were the owners and as if everything relied on their own efforts.

One truth revealed in the parable is that we are reluctant to surrender our sins to God; we would rather live our lives as orphans who try to fend for themselves with the possession of our sin instead of living confidently as children of God as heirs to God’s Kingdom. We frequently have very little confidence in God’s mercy and providence because we choose to hold back and exclude certain aspects of our lives from God’s sovereignty.

When we look outside our windows at the unrest in our streets today, we can bear witness to what happens when our American experiment as a democratic republic willfully excludes God from its public life. The separation of church and state is for the sake of the protection of the life of the Church and its believers that they are free to encounter and to serve God as their true sovereign and Father in Heaven. It is not to replace God with the state, nor to exclude religion and its accompanying spirituality and ministry from our participation as citizens. When we look at our society through the lens of the media, we can bear witness to the effects of the incursion into political life of a new religion of the self with the summation of its social ethic being, “When I was hungry, you gave me the pill.” When we look in the mirror, we can bear witness that we so many times prefer to live as orphans of mediocrity than to live a life of confident trust as children of our heavenly Father. We come to realize that we have incrementally grown attached and fond of our sins to the point that we prefer them to God.

Ultimately when we reject God’s fatherhood, we come to fear God as an adversary to our freedom and self-will. We are sons and daughters of God, not His competitors. When we approach God as just one of our peers, we inevitably adopt an adversarial stance to God, and we run from Him. The desires of our fallen will do not correspond with those of God’s will because God wills and desires what is best for each of us. Without grace, each of us would prefer to settle for less than the immensity of what God offers us through His revelation and love. If we reject the fatherhood of God, we will inevitably reject our neighbor as a brother or sister and come to treat them as means to an end. The Gospel reveals that we are not simply peers with each other, we are brothers and sisters and heirs to a Kingdom of which Christ is sovereign and of which we are heirs.

The need for redemption that I see writ large in the headlines and in our streets is also writ large in the sinfulness of each of our false attachments to selfishness and sin.  Yet, we cannot stop at an awareness of our sinfulness because we would lose patience and despair.  We must continue patiently by looking to God’s fidelity in the Scriptures, in the lives of the saints, and in our own lives when we are faithful, and most especially in Christ Himself. We can see there that God is faithful and loving because He can do nothing else. He is perfectly reliable. Even now God extends His mercy to us and asks only that we give Him what we currently cling to out of fear and cowardice.

In the first reading we hear a poem that Isaiah probably wrote for a harvest celebration. In it he depicts God’s people as a choice vine and a well-cared for vineyard. Isaiah depicts God as saddened: “he looked for a crop of grapes but what it yielded was wild grapes.” Wild grapes appear when the vineyard is not well-tended. God expects us to recognize our gifts and the beauty of our lives, and he condemns those who are apathetic to their brothers and sisters and indifferent to His gifts and let them go unattended. If we look at Matthew’s recapitulation of Isaiah’s parable, it seems that God does not so much condemn our mistakes and misdirected energy, but our laziness or sloth that permits evil to be perpetrated against others.

Our riches and gifts are not given for our selfish use; they are given to us so that we can share them in charity. But more than just sharing our gifts, we are also called to seek out those who are impatient with God and have become hopeless and help them find justice. It is neither easy nor comfortable to take a stand against evil in a world filled with injustice. It seems impolite to do so and we would rather be nice. The Gospel teaches us that as Christians we cannot afford simply to be nice.

In Saint Paul’s letter today, he helps us not to grow impatient with God. Saint Paul writes to the Philippians, “be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise. Live according to what you have heard me say and seen me do.”

If we do this, we cultivate our gifts, not for our private use but that they can be shared generously. Then, as members of the Church, the Lord’s “choice vine,” we can pray with renewed integrity and confidence the Psalm we prayed to God a few moments ago, “Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name. O Lord, God of Hosts, restore us; if Your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.”

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