27th. Sunday of Year (A)
(Isaiah 5:1-7; Paul to the Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43)
Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah foretold the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah; in the Gospel we heard of Jesus directly warning the Jews of their ultimate rejection as Chosen People called to bring in the Kingdom of God and -- as subsequent history would show -- indirectly that the Romans would raze Jerusalem to the ground and destroy Israel’s Temple, the glory of Jerusalem. In both cases the destruction was a punishment for the nation's sin, continued and deliberate sin: the vineyard itself – the house of Israel and the people of Judah --failed to produce fruit in the parable of Isaiah, and in Jesus' parable the tenants – vide. the chief priests and religious elders --repeatedly and deliberately, withheld the produce, the fruit, to which the landowner, the God of Israel and Judah, had a right, and ultimately killed his most beloved son.
But of course, God is not concerned about grapes for Himself. What 'fruit' does He expect of us who are now disciples and members of Jesus called to serve and usher in God’s Kingdom world-wide?
Through Him 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. 13:5)
We, disciples following Jesus their Lord, are called to offer up His uniquely supreme and eternal sacrifice, with our own accompanying 'sacrifice of praise', 'the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name'; thanks, indeed, to God for the many personal blessings we have received throughout our lives from Him in the name of Jesus and through His Spirit.
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 affluent, society, though constantly relating themselves to the material and physical world around us for what pleasures or riches they can get from it, do not regard it as God’s generous gift to us, His truly beautiful and wise creation for us, and they do not, consequently, feel gratitude to God so much as praise for themselves when having been able to grasp something of what they wanted for themselves.. And if such people, wanting much, then envy others who seem better at getting than themselves, how can they appreciate as blessings the things they themselves have already taken from an unacknowledged God? How can young adults appreciate the blessing of a good home with loving parents if they are all the time wanting to live it up, so to speak, with the wildest and most foolish of their peers around? Can those who have developed a lust for pleasures a-plenty take in even the wisest words of their parents or teachers about the benefits and joys of a good education?
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, (but) apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
What, among the multitude of gifts that God gives, are the blessings for which we Catholics and Christians should most particularly bring forth the fruit of lips giving thanks to Him? In that regard, the Christian tradition, in its Jewish-Christian origins or its Gentile-Christian development is unanimous in its teaching, as is witnessed in the letter of St. James from Jerusalem:
The wisdom that 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 (3:17-18);
and by those of St. Paul, writing to the Gentile Church at Rome (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 (5:22):
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.
Joy and peace in believing, hope based on the power of God's Spirit, such, St. Paul tells us, are the better gifts that God gives those who truly believe in, and faithfully follow, His beloved Son.
Let us listen, however, as St. Paul 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. (Romans 14:17)
Apparently, there were, even in the earliest Christian communities some who were beginning to appreciate immediate worldly pleasures more than heavenly blessings. Now this switch from the heavenly to what is earthly begins first of all with the earthly imitating the heavenly: pleasure being paraded as joy; sexual and passionate love-making being thought of as an ideal expression of Christian love/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 more modern situations and so are blatantly substituted 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, nor indulge ourselves in, the sin of the world and, at the same time, pretend to know God or hope for His blessings. It also warns us that we should not allow ourselves to be led into the inviting downward spiral – a truly horrific ‘black hole’ -- which, going round and round, would comfort us, at one moment, by offering what is worldly, and then, occasionally try to reassure us with what might appear heavenly, for it is always and inevitably spiralling round and down from heavenly to earthly according to the strength of one’s worldly desires. Round and round, indeed, that spiral goes, but ever-more steeply downwards, until, in the end, the worldly is found to be totally illusory while the heavenly is no longer understood 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. (Hebrews 13:15)
To do this, our Catholic and Christian calling, we have to invite God much more seriously into our lives: we need to prepare a welcome for Him by suspending, warding off, holding in abeyance, the cares, anxieties, and fears that can fill our hearts and weigh us down; we need to create a breathing space in the multitude of our daily thoughts and imaginations, preoccupations and fears, so that He might be able to speak with us and we hear Him. Oh, how such interior silence and peace is feared and hated by people today! To encourage us to give time to Him in our daily living God originally established the sabbath rest day; today, interior silence and peace should, for truly Catholic people, be part of the rhythmic routine and strength of our lives; we can never tell Him, ‘I have only a few minutes, You must do all that both You and I want in the only time I have available.’
Moreover, we need to give a truly personal welcome in our hearts to God Who is sublimely Personal Himself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. First of all, a welcome for Jesus, God the Son made man, our Brother and our Saviour; and in Him, for the Father, our Father and your and my Father; and for the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, my comforter, my strength, and my joy. For our Faith is more than our common bond and identity, it has to become also, for each and every one of us, our total and most personal, loving commitment.
God is infinitely, sublimely, Personal, and our capacity for a truly personal relationship is a unique gift of God to mankind. However, it is not a cheap gift, for it demands a foregoing sacrifice: a willingness to open up self to Him and an on-going preparedness to hand over self, to yield personal autonomy for love of Him and His.
Now self is also, in some respects, the great ‘forgettable’ of modern times. Boy and girl, man and woman, meet, and instead of meeting someone find themselves, already conditioned through social practices and pleasures, to being immediately confronted with a body: a girl or woman displaying, or drawing attention to, her body; or a man … or mannish boy … obsessed with her, or embarrassed by his own, body. In such circumstances the essential Christian relationship, a truly personal relationship is very difficult if not impossible, and that is why our Faith demands that we must not let sex, bodily gratification (please, don’t even think of the modern word of self-justification, ‘love‘, in this respect!) rule in our lives, mar our relationships.
Our Faith is meant to be far more than our common bond and identity. We Catholics should be, in this increasingly pagan world, ever more conscious of and gratefully thankful for our difference in the world! We cannot tell people today how to live; fellow Christians once could help each other by occasional, mutual, correction, but today we can only give the worldlings around us -- some of them perhaps even of our own family -- a humble and sincere witness to Jesus and His Christian teaching by our open service to and love for Himself, and for all in their need for Him. Our Catholic faith is today called to be, for each and every one of us, our total and most personal commitment: to Jesus, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit; and that personal commitment, response, and self-sacrifice should be reflected in the whole of our lives in Mother Church, becoming far more influential than our ‘body’ commitment to the life and culture of our modern society; indeed, it can and, hopefully and prayerfully, will lead us to the fulfilment spoken of in those beautiful words of St. Paul:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise —meditate on and practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.