In our first reading the prophet Isaiah described Israel as a vineyard planted by the Lord which, despite the care He had taken of it, failed to bring forth good fruit. And for that, the prophet went on to warn Israel, 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 this prophecy the kingdom of Israel first of all, and subsequently the kingdom of Judah, were both politically destroyed: both were no longer kingdoms or independent political powers of any sort, just mere tracts of territory ruled by foreign lords, inhabited by vassals.
When, therefore, Jesus took up again the prophecy of Isaiah, when He Himself, told a parable of a landowner who planted a vineyard, prepared for and protected it to the full, and then was unable to get the fruit of the vineyard, His hearers, the religious authorities in Israel and Judah of Jesus’ time themselves totally subject to the world power that was Rome, realized that His words would be of great significance.
And so they were, for Jesus made some changes to the picture originally painted by Isaiah:
The vineyard itself was fruitful (you will remember Jesus’ earlier 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 fruitful.
However, those in charge of the vineyard, the tenants were the unfruitful ones who 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.
The Jewish leaders were not, however, at that moment paying attention to the detail about the Son: they were only intent on what they feared would be the final outcome for themselves: their power, their position of authority, might be 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; kings and rulers had always resisted God’s prophets’ message in order to maintain their own political power (haven’t kings and potentates done that since the beginning of time?). But now, in Jesus’ time, something much more sinister was taking place: Israel’s religious leaders -- in particular the Pharisees and their Scribes -- were fighting against Jesus to have complete power over God’s spiritual kingdom on earth for themselves, claiming unique authority over God’s spiritual formation of His Chosen People. Therefore, Jesus now speaks of the end of the cultic authority of Temple with its priests and Levites and of the rejection of the spiritual authority of the Scribes and Pharisees as authentic exponents of the Torah; and ultimately, He even speaks of the end of the whole nations’ spiritual exaltation as the Chosen 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, comprising 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: kings and people had sinned -- ignoring God’s many and great prophets – and now that former kingdom comprised nothing more than the two small and very insignificant Roman provinces of Judea and Samaria, along with mis-trusted Galilee in the north. Nevertheless, its spiritual pride was even more intense because of such humiliations. Yes, they hated what had befallen their once spiritually prestigious nation; and now, this Jesus -- coming indeed from Nazareth in Galilee-of-the-Gentiles of all places -- was proclaiming Himself as the Son – yes, the very Son of God -- come to harvest the fruit due from the vineyard of the Law and the Prophets, promising no Messianic restoration of political power, and proclaiming that Israel’s hitherto unique privilege would no longer be their exclusive pride and joy but would be offered to all: the presently disdained Gentiles and pagans world-wide who knew nothing of God, above all the despicable and most hated 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 – He always has -- 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 that He likewise brought the great Temple of Solomon down to the ground; before finally -- as Jesus foretold -- humbling the supremely impressive and most prestigious Temple of Herod. But what does all this mean for us? There is no unique Temple today; we are from all nations not just one chosen people: the Kingdom of God’s own Son cannot, surely, be destroyed as were those ancient indeed, but, nevertheless, temporal institutions?
Let us look again at those who brought about the downfall of the Chosen People.
Those 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 earthly, worldly, reasons, being afraid of the effect of God’s message proclaimed by the Prophets. There were others, however, such as the Pharisees and their Scribes, who resisted the coming of God’s Kingdom, its flourishing in Israel, by attempting to take control of God’s proclamation itself. The first opponents were rejected, and indeed ejected into exile, by God; the latter, however, themselves rejected God, and could only be themselves ejected by the death and resurrection of His Son.
People of God today, governments (kings) and those who -- like the Pharisees of old proclaim their own version of a ‘godly’ kingdom of social cohesion and well-being -- are now as one, shouting loud and in unison, LIBERTY, FRATERNITY, EQUALITY, for the deafening of all spiritual and moral teaching of divine origin, and ultimately for the destruction of all religious institutions of and for divine sustenance in the world. And to punish such world-wide hatred for and ambition-to-replace all that is truly spiritual, the Bible and Christian testimony undoubtedly records, and surely encourages us to expect God’s saving punishment today for mankind’s threatened eternal salvation.
God’s People are not restricted to their leaders’ awareness of God’s desires and wishes, possibilities and dealings; they follow their leaders’ teachings in the name of Jesus faithfully and whole-heartedly, and in return they can and do expect some spiritual awareness and understanding, some religious guidance, which are most strangely lacking as regards our world’s current and pandemic troubles. Is that pandemic, with all its dire troubles and resultant human fears, totally, merely, natural, and of no intentional, no spiritual significance? Is God indeed irrelevant to, can He be thought to be disinterested in, what is happening all over the world.
My brother and sisters in Christ, we should be supremely careful of, solicitous for, the purity of our faith. Today there are many who set themselves up as teachers, as guides to worldly success and to temporal happiness. Indeed, they even lay claim to ‘know’ that God does not exist, and that nothing lies beyond death ... although such assertions are no longer backed up by that scientific knowledge which is modernity’s real pride and joy: knowledge which they can so readily present, prove and even demonstrate by practical experiment and sensible observation. Spirituality, however, the life and breath of the human spirit is totally, totally, beyond them.
Today, many Catholics and Christians allow – or suffer -- themselves to be persuaded, overwhelmed, by such worldly but also devilish wisdom and its messengers. Even more sadly, however, there are too many Catholics today who are willing to ignore or even distort Jesus’ Good News of life eternal -- which should be treasured by faith in their own mind and heart -- for a few years of social advantage, worldly comfort, and pseudo-security in a world that offers no future hope, no peaceful remembrance.
There is only one true peace, there is only one true way of progress and profit for salvation, and that is given us by St. Paul, in our second reading:
Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard in (Mother Church). Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.