27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; October 4, 2020
Readings: Is 5:1-7; Ps80:8,12-16,19-20; Ph 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43
In today’s 1st reading the prophet Isaiah, as a ‘friend of God’, gives expression to the sorrow of God on account of the infidelity of his people Israel. After comparing the care and protection God gives to his people to the care that a man might take in planting and cultivating a vineyard, he laments that God’s vineyard, Israel, has brought forth bad fruit: injustice and disobedience to God’s commands. As a result, God will take away the care and protection he had provided.
If we want to translate this into real world terms, the removal of the hedge meant that God allowed Israel’s enemies to be victorious in battle, plundering Israel and laying waste the land. The vineyard becomes overgrown with thorns and briers, because the leaders and people, given to wickedness rather than virtue, become burdensome to one another, oppressive to the good people who remain, and generally destructive of the common good. Finally, the absence of rain signifies the ignorance of God’s word and the consequent privation of truth.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable directed against the leaders of the people, a parable that clearly alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard. Jesus’ words reveal that the same pattern of infidelity has been repeated during the course of the history of Israel. The leaders fail to cultivate the vineyard according to God’s law and so fail to offer to God the fruit of a people that is faithful to the Lord. Time and time again, God sends prophets and they are violently rejected.
Jesus’ presence, however, brings the whole history to a conclusion because he is the very Son of God. The leaders are given one last chance and by rejecting Jesus, the vineyard will be lost and given to another people entirely.
Literally, this took place with the transfer of the covenant from the people of Israel to the Catholic Church. Since the day of Pentecost, the Catholic Church has been the vineyard of the Lord.
Now we have to ask a difficult question: has the same story of infidelity been replayed in the history of the Catholic Church?
In a most important way, the answer is “no”. That is because once the Son of God became man, he never laid aside his sacred humanity, but took it up with him to heaven to the right hand of the Father. From there he rules his ‘Kingdom’, the Church; just as he can no longer be separated from his sacred humanity, he can no longer be separated from his Bride, the Church. He established the new and eternal covenant in his Blood and no human infidelity could ever dissolve that covenant. So, to St. Peter he gave the promise, The gates of hell shall not prevail against her. (Mt 16:18) And to all the Apostles he declared: I am with you always, until the end of the age. (Mt. 28:20)
In another way, however, the answer is ‘yes’.
The answer is ‘yes’ because while the whole Church can never fail, the story of infidelity is played out anew in particular places and times. There are places and peoples where the Catholic faith once flourished, but which have since lost the faith altogether.
We can ask if perhaps Europe, or at least western Europe, which for so long was the land of the Catholic faith, is not getting her last chance? As for the United States I will be so bold as to say that we have never been a completely Christian country because we have never been a Catholic country. So perhaps, despite our present crisis, we have an important opportunity left.
At the same time, it would seem that the one place in the world where the Catholic faith is most flourishing is on the African continent. Perhaps the vineyard of the Lord will soon be transferred from Europe to Africa?
There is yet another important application of the parable of the vineyard.
Each baptized soul is a ‘vineyard of the Lord’. We have each received the messengers of God’s word. Do we welcome their message and bear the fruit of righteousness to the glory of God? Or do we reject God’s messengers?
Finally, do we receive the very Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ, or do we rather reject him?
It might be strange to suggest that we could be coming to Mass, professing the faith, but rejecting Jesus Christ; strange, yes, but very possible indeed. Jesus himself said, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mt 7:21)
So, let me give a couple of examples, but without naming names.
There is a well-known and prominent Catholic priest in this country, who receives the praise of the world, and who openly undercuts the teaching of the Church (and of right reason) by supporting the whole LGBT agenda. He says ‘Lord, Lord’, but he hardly appears to do the will of God.
We have also many prominent political figures who make a public profession of being devout Catholics, while maintaining a long history of supporting legal abortion. The receive the praise of the world but for all their outward devotion, they hardly appear to be doing the will of God.
When we look at major public figures, we see the issues writ large so to speak. Nevertheless, we need to examine our own personal lives for consistency: do we truly live from our faith by doing the will of God, so that our soul has become a fruitful vineyard giving glory to God, or do we believe with our lips, while our lives follows the way of the world?
Finally, the Lord leaves us with some words that are key, if only we can grasp their meaning. The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.
Of course, the stone is Jesus Christ himself.
St. Peter writes: Come to him, a living stone, rejected by men but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pe 2:4-5)
The stone that is Jesus Christ is signified very concretely and tangibly in the altar, made of stone, upon which the living Body and Blood of Christ, hidden beneath the appearances of bread and wine, is offered as the one sacrifice that is truly pleasing to God.
St. Paul tells us, I urge you through the mercies of God, to offer you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. (Rm 12:1) This is how we are to live our holy baptismal priesthood, letting ourselves be built into the spiritual temple, by offering our spiritual sacrifice to God through, with, and in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, offered on the altar in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
In a word, the stone rejected by the builders, during the course of history, since the time of Christ, is the sacrifice of the Mass itself. The history of the world revolves around the Mass. Do the builders of cities, states, and nations put the sacrifice of the Mass at the foundation of the building or not? Do the builders of culture, science, and education put the sacrifice of the Mass at the foundation of the building or not?
Sad to say, we even need to ask if the builders of the Church, bishops and priests, (cf. 1 Cor 3:5-11) put the sacrifice of the Mass at the foundation or not? We need to ask the question because the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice has practically disappeared from the life of the Church (celebration facing the people has something to do with that), just as the true concept of sacrifice both as expiation of sin and as a loving gift given to the honor and glory of God has practically been lost to the whole of society.
In both Isaiah’s song of the vineyard and in Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants, the vineyard has a winepress. The vineyard cannot achieve its purpose without the winepress, an instrument of transformation. The Mass is the winepress of God without which his vineyard cannot achieve its purpose, without which human lives cannot be transformed and sanctified.
Turning to the 2nd reading, the Mass is what enables us to bring our requests to God, without anxiety, in prayer and thanksgiving; the Mass is the source of the peace that surpasses understanding; the Mass is the origin of every fruitful effort towards whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.