Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah – privileged to foreshadow the Gospel in Old Testament times – warned of the imminent overthrow of the kingdom of Israel, to be followed later by that of Judah and the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple. In the Gospel passage itself Jesus warned the Jews of what eventually happened when the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground, and utterly destroyed the far more glorious Temple of Herod, the jewel and pride of Jerusalem. In both cases the destruction was punishment for the nation's continued and deliberate sin: in Isaiah, the vineyard itself failed to produce fruit, whereas in Jesus' parable it was the tenants who, repeatedly and deliberately, withheld the fruit to which the landowner had a right.
But of course, God is not bothered about grapes for Himself; what, then, is the 'fruit' He expects of us who are disciples of Jesus and members of His Kingdom? In the letter to the Hebrews (13:15) we are clearly told:
Through Him (Jesus) then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.
'A sacrifice of praise' because we are called to offer up the supreme and eternal sacrifice of praise first offered by Our Lord Jesus Himself on Calvary; 'the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name' because we too, as disciples following their Lord, have to learn to offer up our own continual, heartfelt, thanks to God for the many personal blessings we have received from Him throughout our lives.
In order to give thanks, however, we have to be able to recognize and appreciate our blessings; and since many people in our modern western and relatively affluent society habitually relate themselves to the world around rather than to God, it is to be expected that they do not, in fact, express or feel much gratitude to God. Those who aspire to, strive after, long for, what the world has on offer and seems to bestow easily and plenteously enough on those willing to accept its standards and conform to its ways, how can they appreciate the gifts and blessings offered by God? How can young adults, wanting to live it up -- so to speak -- with the wildest and most foolish of their peers around them, appreciate the blessing of a good home with loving parents? Can those who have developed a lust for pleasures and thrills a-plenty accept and take in even the most gentle, or the wisest, words of parents or teachers about the benefits of a good education and the fulfilling joys of a good life?
Our Christian, catholic, forebears were much more inclined to give God the 'fruit of lips that give thanks to His name' because they lived in a world clearly alien and openly hostile to their faith. Today, however, too many Catholics think of their faith as being alien to a world they find at times both impressive and attractive, and themselves as unwelcome in a society demanding ever greater compliance and conformity. As a result, they endeavour to keep in touch with the world's practices and gradually, inevitably, lose their appreciation of the faith of their fathers and their awareness of the blessings of God's grace in their lives:
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
What are the gifts that God gives, the blessings for which we should bring forth the fruit of lips giving thanks to Him? The Christian tradition, in its Jewish-Christian origins or its Gentile-Christian development, is unanimous from the beginning in its teaching, as witnessed in the letter of St. James from Jerusalem:
The wisdom the is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace; (James 3:17-18)
and by those of St. Paul, writing, first of all, to the gentile Church at Rome (Rom 15:13):
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit;
and again, to his own converts in Galatia:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. (Gal. 5:22)
Joy and peace in believing, hope based on the power of God's Spirit, patience, kindness, goodness, such -- the Christian tradition proclaims -- are the gifts that God gives those who truly believe in, and faithfully follow, His Son.
Listen carefully, however, as St. Paul – further on in his letter to the Romans -- tells us what can threaten that tradition:
The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)
Apparently, there were, even in the earliest Christian communities some who were beginning to appreciate worldly pleasures more than heavenly blessings. Now this process begins first of all with what is earthly, imitating or being mistaken for, what is of heavenly origin: pleasure being mistaken for joy; sexual and passionate love-making being passed off as an ideal expression of Christian charity; indifference and indulgence being accepted as substitutes for patience, kindness, and goodness. In other cases, however, the heavenly blessings are regarded as no longer suited to our modern situations and so are blatantly replaced by worldly counterfeits: righteousness before God cannot be seen by others, and so, for the spread of the faith, the disciples of Jesus should aim at popularity and public appeal. Again the gift of peace, which is rooted in God's Spirit ruling our mind and heart, is popularly supplanted by a carefree ignoring of the claims and commands of conscience: after all, a life-style uncluttered by self-discipline or examination of conscience is much more easy to sell on the doorstep or promote in the street, so to speak: just as an invitation to assemblies promising a communal good time will be accepted with far greater alacrity than one to a gathering for true worship and serious prayer.
That is why our Gospel message today, supported by the age-old experience of God's dealings with His People, is so important for us. It shows us with all clarity that we cannot turn our hearts to, we cannot indulge ourselves in, the sin of the world and, at the same time, seriously aspire to know God and hope for His blessings. It also warns us that we should not allow ourselves to be led into the inviting downward spiral which, going round and round, would comfort us, at one moment, by offering what is worldly, and then, at the next moment, reassure us with the heavenly; spiralling round and round from earthly to heavenly according to our personal desires. Round and round, indeed, that spiral goes, but always and ever-more steeply downwards until, in the end, the worldly is found to be totally illusory and the heavenly no longer appreciated, wanted, or forthcoming.
Through (Jesus) then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. (Heb. 13:15)
To begin to do this, our Christian and our personal calling, we have to invite God much more seriously into our lives: we have to prepare a welcome for Him in our hearts by suspending, holding in abeyance, the cares, anxieties, and fears that can oppress and fill them; we have to make a breathing space in the multitude of our thoughts so that He might be able to speak with us; we have to give time in our daily lives to Him, that is why He gave us the Sabbath rest, and we cannot tell Him, ‘I have only a few minutes, you must do all that both You and I want, in the time I have available.
God is Personal: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A capacity for a truly personal relationship is a unique gift of God to mankind … but is not a cheap gift, it demands a foregoing sacrifice: a willingness to open up self, and a preparedness to hand over self, yield personal autonomy.
Self …... in some respects the great ‘forgotten’ of modern times. Boy and girl, man and woman, meet, and instead of encountering someone they are confronted with a body, instead of beginning to like and learning to appreciate someone they a challenged with a body … a girl, woman, displaying a body, or a boy, a man, wanting a body.
Now, our Faith is meant to be far more than our common bond and identity, it has to become also, for each and every one of us, our total and most personal commitment: first of all to Jesus, the Son of God, our Brother and my Saviour; and in Him, to the Father, our Father and my Father; and to the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, my comforter, my strength, and my joy. And that personal commitment, response, and self-sacrifice should be reflected in the rest of our lives: it should become far more influential than the ‘body’ commitment and culture of our modern society, indeed, it could, and should, lead us to the fulfilment of those words of St. Paul:
Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.