This is the most important time of the year for farmers – it’s harvest time. By the quality of the food grown in Ontario this year, this has been a great year. The strawberries, the peaches, the corn were delicious. For any farmer it is a good year if the harvest is bountiful, but it is a disaster if the harvest fails. All that hard work for nothing and harvest time turns to misery.
Our first reading and the gospel are almost parallel stories. They tell of all the hard work that goes into developing a vineyard. Turning the soil, planting and caring for the vines, building a tower for protection, digging out a wine vat for making wine, all these are part and parcel of the vineyard. After all that effort and hard work one looks for and hopes for a good harvest. Imagine the disappointment on discovering the vines you cultivated so carefully have produced wild, sour grapes, good for nothing. The owner looses his investment, it’s not only the grapes that are sour.
The story Jesus tells runs pretty parallel to the one Isaiah tells. Its all about God’s generosity to His people, the people God chose to be His own. How is that generosity repaid? As our disappointed God asks, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”
We see the same disappointment in the gospel story. It is even worse. The tenants repay the generosity of the owner by killing his son. And there are consequences to the actions of the tenants. In the Isaiah story the vineyard is let go to waste, in the gospel the tenants are driven out and the vineyard is given to others. In hearing these two stories, but especially the gospel we may be tempted to read into this gospel something it does not say, that Christianity is superior to and supercedes Judaism. That’s not what this gospel teaches and to think this would be a dangerous and incorrect reading and understanding of who Jesus was and is. It’s important to remember that God’s love for and covenant with the Jewish people has not been taken away, nor is it replaced by God’s love for those who follow Jesus.
On Good Friday when we pray for the Jewish people we acknowledge they were the first to hear the word of God, to them belongs the covenant and the prophets and as Jesus told the Samaritans, “salvation is from the Jews.”
Matthew presents Jesus as sent to the people of Israel, the Jews, to call them back to their original experiences of the Exodus and God’s saving love and formation of them as God’s chosen people. At this Eucharist we are called back to our original experience of God’s saving love as we re-present the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The people of Israel and the people of Christianity are reminded of just who they are in God’s eyes and how they are to respond. The response of the people then and our response today indicate a similar human resistance to what God invites us all to be. The reading from Isaiah and the gospel of Matthew teach us that we, Jews and Christians are the vine, the vineyard planted and created for a just relationship with that Planter.
During his recent visit to France, Pope Benedict met with leaders of the French Jewish community. He had this to say, “Dear friends, for reasons that unite us and for reasons that separate us, we must live and strengthen our fraternity. And we know that the bonds of fraternity are a continual invitation to know one another better and to respect one another.” The Pope goes on to say, “By her very nature, the Catholic Church is called to respect the Covenant established by God with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She also places herself, in fact, in the eternal Covenant of the Almighty, who does not repent of his plan and respects the children of the Promise, children of the Covenant, as her beloved brothers and sisters in the faith. The Church repeats forcefully, through my voice, the words of the great Pope Pius XI, who said to a group of Belgium pilgrims in 1938 ‘Spiritually, we are all Semites’. Hence, the Church is opposed to all forms of anti-Semitism, for which there is no acceptable theological justification. To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christian.”
On Thursday of this coming week our Jewish friends and neighbours will be celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in which they face the reality of all those times and occasion where they have failed, individually and as a community to be a fruitful vineyard and commit themselves once more to be faithful to their covenant with God. We could join with them in that same spirit of sorrow as we face our own failures to be the fruitful vineyard and renew our own desire to be faithful members of God’s holy people, faithful followers of the Christ Who died for us so that we might live in the life of God.