Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:9,12-16, 19-20; Pilippians 4:6-9, 27; Matthew 21: 33-43

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see if there are any ideas underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.

Jesus begins his parable by painting a very typical picture of a first century vineyard. It contained the basic staples of which his audience -- the chief priests and elders -- would have been familiar. A vineyard hedge was a thickly grown hedge of thorns and briars which would naturally keep wild boars and such from plundering the produce and pose a hardship to grape-stealing thieves. Every vineyard would contain within its walls of hedges a wine press. A wine press would either be dug out of rock or constructed with stone blocks or bricks. It would consist of two separate troughs one slightly higher than the other with a connection between them at floor level. When pressed, the juice from the grapes would settle into the lower trough. The tower served various purposes. The foreman could assess the work and give orders from the tower -- its lookout could be used to guard against thieves -- and its insides might provide a lodging area for the workers of the vineyard.

The arrangement between landowner and tenants of which Jesus speaks would not be out of the ordinary. That is, landowners would plant and build a vineyard and then lease this land to tenants. The landowner would collect his rent by various means. The landowner might collect a previously agreed upon sum of money, a previously agreed upon amount of produce, or a percentage of the total produce harvested.

When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way

Vintage season would have been in late September before the heavy rainfall would take place. What about the reaction of the tenants when they are called upon to -- Pay Up? Was this typical or even probable in the Time of Jesus? Unfortunately, the unrest created by economic hardships and occasional, unfair business practices would create innate hostility toward any landowners from the workers and tenants. Such a reaction could lead to the violence of which Christ speaks.

Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, They will respect my son. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another -- This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance. They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

If the violence leveled against the servants of the landowner was not completely out of the ordinary, what about the probability of such violence against the son of the landowner -- with the outcome being the possible inheritance of the vineyard? Is this an unbelievable legal circumstance? According to Jewish law, if a Jewish landowner died without any heir, the tenants who had been working the land would have first claim. Therefore, with the elimination of the son, the only person standing in the way of the impending inheritance is the father himself. One would think that in a legal proceeding the action of murdering the son would immediately disqualify the tenants from the inheritance; however, perhaps we are given a privileged position as hearers of the whole story whereas the details in a court of law would be fuzzier. In short, under the right circumstances, this entire episode could, indeed, unfold in the time of Jesus.

Let us also identify all the players -- in case they are not obvious. The vineyard is the nation of Israel -- the chosen people of God. The owner of the vineyard is God. The tenants are the religious leaders of Israel who were responsible for the cultivation of fruitful holiness and the wellbeing of the people of Israel. The servants sent by the landowner are the prophets who God sent to warn, to encourage, to challenge and to reassure; yet they were often greeted with threats of violence and even death. The son in the story is Jesus who is sent by His heavenly Father.

HOMILY: Our God is a God who trusts his workers. Just as the landowner gave the tenants a fully equipped vineyard in which to work and produce, God creates the possibilities for work, fruitfulness and success for us too. He provides us with opportunities and resources and trusts that we will make the most of these. Our own, personal vineyards are completely unique. Do we recognize how our lives are molded by God? Do we recognize the opportunities and resources that God has given us? Have we experienced the freedom and trust that God gives us? Have we responded responsibly or have we responded similar to the tenants at times?

The first reading from Isaiah echoes this truth. The friend of Isaiah owns a fertile hillside, he spades it, he clears it of stones, plants the choicest vines, builds the traditional watchtower, installs the typical wine press and then anticipates an excellent and abundant harvest. What he gets instead are wild grapes. We feel the pain of unrequited love in the second half of the reading of Isaiah. We feel the pain of a broken heart acting out in anger -- an earthy, anthropomorphic illustration of the disappointment God feels in his people who have not acted justly and with compassion to the lowly and oppressed.

HOMILY: How many of us and identify with unrequited love? Who has escaped unharmed the hurt associated with loving someone who does not love you back? Do you remember that hurt? That pain? Those sleepless nights? Those expectations smashed? What may have compounded that hurt is the apparent unconcern the object of your affection showed toward your pain, or worse, the apparent obliviousness of how deeply you loved this person. Can we identify with the disappointment illustrated in Isaiah's words? Does this make us want to be more responsive to the love and attention showed to us by God?

HOMILY: Our God is a patient God. Just as the landowner sent several servants in multiple waves to collect his payment of produce, God also seemingly gives us chance after chance to respond to his unique call to us. Do we recognize and appreciate the patience of God? How many warnings have we disregarded? Do we fear having our particular task taken away from us? Do we recognize the impending judgment of God based upon our response to His call of vocation and His call to holiness?

What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes? The answered him -- He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.

One can not help but to feel the impending sting of this self-condemning answer made by the chief priests and elders. If this is not a divine example of -- walking right into a trap -- I do not know what is.

Jesus said to them -- Did you ever read in 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.

By the resurrection of Christ, God the Father vindicates the rejection of His Son and makes him the cornerstone of a new and mighty structure -- the body of Christ -- a holy people entered into a new and everlasting covenant.

God giving and taking away His blessings and his kingdom is not a concept unique to this text. One is reminded of the words -- to he who has, more will be given, to he who has only a little, even that will be taken away. That is, God expects from us an abundant produce if we are to be builders and residents of His kingdom. Also, in the parable of the talents we are reminded that we are to use our gifts wisely in order to maintain them.

HOMILY: Perhaps paint a picture of the orchard or vineyard within your parish. What are the variety of fruits necessary for a vibrant, healthy parish? What organizations are producing important fruit? How are these fruits visible in the members of the parish community? What part of the orchard or vineyard is healthy? Where do we need fertilizing and tender care to occur? How can be better produce fruit for God?

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