In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard the prophet describe Israel as a vineyard planted by the Lord which, despite the care He had taken of it, failed to bring forth good fruit. Therefore the prophet went on to warn Israel that the Lord would reject her:
Now, I will let you know what I mean to do to My vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it. The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His cherished plant; He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!
In fulfilment of that prophecy the kingdom of Israel first of all, and subsequently the kingdom of Judah, were indeed destroyed: both were no longer kingdoms or political powers of any sort, just mere tracts of territory ruled by foreign lords, inhabited by vassals.
Therefore, when Jesus took up again the prophecy of Isaiah -- when He, in His turn, told a parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard, prepared for and protected it to the full, and then was unable to get his share of the fruit --- His hearers, the religious authorities in Israel and Judah of Jesus’ time, realised the significance of His words.
Some changes had been made by Jesus to the picture painted by Isaiah: the vineyard itself was fruitful, as you will remember Jesus’ other words:
The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest. (Mt. 9:37s.)
Yes, the vineyard itself was capable of producing good fruit. However, those in charge of the vineyard, the tenants, would not hand over any produce or profit to the landowner even though, eventually, the owner’s very son came to claim it for his father.
At this point the Jewish leaders were not paying attention to the detail about the Son: they were only intent on what they feared would be the final outcome: their power, their position of authority, being taken away from them.
Earlier, the prophet Isaiah had foretold of the destruction of the political kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and that prophecy had indeed been realized. In the past, kings and rulers had resisted the prophets’ messages in order to maintain their own political power -- haven’t kings and potentates been doing that since the beginning of time? But now something much more sinister was taking place: Israel’s religious leaders -- in particular the Pharisees and Scribes -- were fighting against Jesus for the establishment of God’s spiritual kingdom on earth, claiming their own teaching and traditions to be the unique authority for the spiritual formation of God’s Chosen People. Therefore, Jesus now speaks of the end of the Temple cult with its priests and Levites, and of the spiritual authority of the Scribes and Pharisees as authentic exponents of the Torah and guides towards the attainment of God’s ultimate promises. Indeed, and above all, Jesus is now foreshadowing the end of the nations’ exclusive spiritual privilege as the People of God.
All these privileges, and the provisional type of divine worship they represented, would now have to make way for the future Church of Jesus Christ, the new and authentic People of God worshipping Him in Spirit and in Truth, and embracing not only Israelites, but all men and women of good-will who would hear and obey the Good News of God’s own Son authentically proclaimed to all mankind:
Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.
You can understand why Jesus was both feared and hated by the proud religious authorities of what had once been the kingdom of David: it now comprised nothing more than the two small and insignificant Roman provinces of Judea and Samaria, along with mistrusted Galilee in the north. Yes, they hated the humiliation which had befallen their proud and once relatively prestigious country; and now this Jesus -- coming indeed from Nazareth in Galilee of all places -- was proclaiming Himself as the Son, yes, the very divine Son of God, come to harvest the fruit due God from the vineyard of His Law and the Prophets, promising no Messianic restoration of political power but, on the contrary, proclaiming that Israel’s hitherto unique privilege would no longer be their exclusive pride and glory but would be opened to all, including the presently disdained Gentiles and pagans who knew nothing of God, and even embracing the hated and despised Romans now ruling their country.
However, some might be thinking, all this is past history, how is it relevant for us today? We understand that God punishes sin in His people and we recall that, as punishment for sin in His Chosen People, He once destroyed their temple at Shilo which the early Israelites had thought untouchable; and then had likewise brought the Temple of Solomon down to the ground; before finally, as Jesus foretold, humbling the supremely impressive and prestigious Temple of Herod. We also recognise that the once wide-spread Kingdom of David had ultimately, under punishment for sin, become a political non-entity and a vassal state. But what does all this mean for us? There is no unique Temple today; we are from all nations not just one religious people: the Kingdom of God’s own Son cannot, surely, be destroyed as were those ancient indeed, but, nevertheless, temporal institutions?
Again, let us look at those who brought about the downfall of the Chosen People. The ones responsible for the twice-repeated exiling of Israel were predominantly political figures, kings, with their courtiers and sycophants, their emulators and opponents. They did great harm to God’s People and were punished accordingly. However, they opposed, resisted, God’s Kingdom in Israel for predominantly worldly reasons, being afraid of the political effect of God’s message of holiness proclaimed by the Prophets. Later however, others, such as the Pharisees and Scribes, resisted the coming of God’s Kingdom, its flourishing in Israel, for religious reasons, by attempting to take control of God’s proclamation itself. The first opponents were rejected by God and indeed thrown into exile by His instruments, those mighty powers they so cravenly feared and yet so foolishly sought to imitate. The latter, however, were so proud of their own pseudo-holiness and so hungry for the power they presently held over the people, that they rejected God’s supreme authority and only-authentic holiness by their presentation and interpretation of His Law and inspired prophecies, to such an extent that their cancerous influence could not be uprooted, exposed, and condemned other than by the death and resurrection of God’s own most holy and only-beloved Son.
People of God we should be supremely careful of, solicitous for, the purity of our faith.
Today there are so many who set themselves up as teachers and guides in the ways of God and who, by means of labels and slogans that disturb and band-wagons that crush -- such as ‘sexist’, ‘racist’, ‘undemocratic’ and ‘out of touch with modern thought and sensitivities’, ‘rigid and intolerant’ -- seek to denigrate and divide whatever they oppose because their pride will not tolerate what their minds cannot subjugate; while themselves ever seeking the limelight of popularity to promote the proclaimed innocence and inevitability of their own actions with words such as ‘we had no option, could not avoid’, and the purity and simplicity of their own intentions with references to ‘the goodness and compassion of God’ and ‘the happiness and well-being of ordinary Catholics and Christians’.
There are, alas, too many Catholics and Christians who allow themselves to be wounded by such, at times ludicrous, but ever pernicious messages and deluded or devilish messengers. Let us therefore look at the wondrous faith and steadfast love of Jesus our Lord and Saviour.
You will remember His night of torment in the Garden of Gethsemane when His human nature shuddered and trembled at the imminence of His Roman crucifixion. He prayed three times in that garden, alone; only a stone’s throw away from His disciples’ help indeed, yet completely alone since such potential human comfort was, in fact, totally uncomprehending. He prayed three times before His Father, He prayed intensely, His sweat being like drops of blood trickling, dropping, down from His forehead and face; He prayed persistently whilst His hardened disciples could not prevent themselves from sleeping through exhaustion; He prayed with patient love and total trust:
Abba, Father, all things are possible to You. Take this cup away from Me, but not what I will but what You will. (Mark 14:36)
You know all that very well; but notice, He heard nothing from His Father. Subsequently He was scourged at the pillar, publicly mocked, spat upon, and crowned with thorns by surrounding soldiers; and still, nothing from His Father. He carried the Cross to His place of execution and had to suffer several severe falls along the way, which evoked foul curses and coarse jibes from the soldiers driving Him on; but nothing, again, from His Father other than the sympathetic tears of a few women standing by! And yet, He had prayed, so very intensely; so, perseveringly; and with such loving confidence, commitment, and trust!!
Jesus, however, never doubted His Father! To calm and confirm His human frailty He had prayed not just once but three times … He knew, therefore, that His Father heard Him … as He once expressed it:
Jesus raised His eyes and said, “Father I thank You for hearing Me. I know that You always hear Me; but because of the crowd here (at the raising of Lazarus) I have said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” (John 11:41-42)
People of God, as most sublimely exemplified by Jesus when His life and mission were climaxing in the degrading sufferings of His death, there is only one true peace, God’s peace, and it has to be treasured at whatever cost; there is only one true way of progress and profit towards that peace and the fulfilment it bestows, and it has to be fought for in a constant struggle against self-seeking and the encroachments of worldly delights and aspirations; and that most loving master-class bequeathed to us by our Blessed Lord is today commended to our gratitude, our loving contemplation and humble imitation, by the Spirit-filled words of His faithful follower and fellow-sufferer, St. Paul, in our second reading:
Brothers, have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Keep on doing what you have learned and received in (Mother Church). Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.