Justice, compassion make a better world

  • September 20, 2011

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 2 (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43)

The prophets of Israel were never easy on the nation — especially the political and religious authorities. Using parables, metaphors, violent language and strange symbolic behaviour they attempted to shock the nation out of its self-delusion and back onto the path of God. They rarely softened or tailored their message and they had a harsh but on-target expression for those who did: false prophets. Today we might call such prophecy “tough love” — there are times when nothing else will suffice.

In this parable Isaiah sings to the beloved, God, of a treasured vineyard and its loving owner. He details the loving care that the owner took for the vineyard and the many ways he provided for it, sparing nothing. He asked only that the vineyard produce a good harvest of grapes. Imagine his shock and anger when the vineyard only produced wild grapes. Wild grapes are rather destructive, unruly and bitter. In the Bible they often symbolize wickedness. The parable then delivers the terrible news: the owner intends to withdraw all the care and protection that had been provided. The vineyard will be destroyed and laid waste. Isaiah then explains that the vineyard is the house of Israel and the plantings the people of Judah. And the reason for the destruction? The owner only expected justice but all he received was bloodshed and injustice.

There is a communal and social core to our relationship with God. The prophets insist endlessly that God is not impressed, even repulsed, by displays of religiosity and piety when fundamental justice and mercy are ignored. When the poor suffer and the weaker members of society are neglected or exploited God commands people in no uncertain terms to tend to them first and then think about worship. Our present concern with religious issues must always be placed in the broader context of justice, peace and the common good.

Paul has some very good advice concerning the best means to form ourselves in a way that is pleasing to God and helpful to others. Our words, thoughts, actions and concerns determine what we become. The tools that are useful are broad but simple: whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, commendable and worthy of praise. It seems obvious but so much energy is expended in needless hand-wringing and arguing over what is properly “spiritual” or “religiously correct.” The tools for our spiritual progress and service of God need not be explicitly religious or spiritual — just  good and true.  The evangelists and the first generations of Christians reused the metaphors and symbols of Old Testament prophecy in order to portray Jesus as the promised Messiah and the Christian community as the new people of God. This was part of the formation of the community’s self-understanding. But this also had a dark side that we are still struggling to overcome. Some of the recast prophetic language appears to delegitimize Israel and the Jewish people and portray them as rejected by God. The rewritten parable of the vineyard in Matthew is an example. The slave messengers sent by the owner represent the prophets while the son and heir symbolize Jesus. The killing of the son is of course the crucifixion. The ominous prediction that the owner would come and kill the tenants is a human theological interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. Matthew was written about 15 years after that event so it was a fresh memory. The rejected stone — Jesus — is now the cornerstone of the new community. The passage ends with the assertion that the kingdom of God will be taken away and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Three things must be kept in mind. First of all this passage was born from the theological rancor of the first century and the unfortunate attempt to supplant Israel. Secondly, the kingdom belongs to no one except God. It is not for giving or taking. Finally, Christians as a whole do not have an exceptionally impressive record for producing the fruits of the kingdom.

A fundamental truth still remains: we are trusted co-workers in God’s vineyard and we are given much. But laziness, indifference or hypocrisy is not an option. We are expected to act with justice and compassion and to labour for a better world.