27th Sunday Ordinary Time.
8th October 2017.
Mt 21: 33-43. Is 5: 1-7
The basic purpose of Isaiah’s song and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable being linked today is to make us think and to search our own conscience. What are our fruits, as believers? Are we in the situation where God has done his part, but sometimes we’re only producing sour grapes, or even worse, turning on our neighbour?
The symbol of the vine and vineyards was an image that Jesus liked to use in different ways in his preaching. Our relationship with God is compared to the way a carefully-tended plant yields good fruit. The hymn: “I am the fruitful vine, and you my branches are,” illustrates this.
The important thing about the vineyard in this particular parable – as in the song by Isaiah in the first reading – is that unfortunately it’s a vineyard that doesn’t produce any fruit, or doesn’t produce the right kind of fruit.
We have images of a vine that produces sour grapes, and vineyard workers who refuse to carry out the owners wishes and turn against him, which are conjured up for us as symbols of those who close themselves off from God’s grace and fail to bear spiritual fruit; despite all the care and the cultivation by the gardener – obviously a symbol for God’s care and concern for his people.
There’s a saying that is sometimes used as a way of emphasising God’s compassion and kindliness: “God takes us as we are”.
It’s true, but it’s only half the truth. God does take us as we are, but if we respond he doesn’t leave us as we are. Contact with God; a relationship with God; changes us. We become a different person: our attitudes, and our behaviour changes. In the more figurative and symbolic language of the Bible – we produce fruit.
I am sure there are some of us here present, myself included, who at some time had no interest or involvement with formal religion, but through some intervention or influence have become more entrenched in our faith—-however frail that might be.
When a gardener puts a lot of care into his plants they ripen and mature. When we play our part in our relationship with God, and respond to the influence of his grace, we also develop in a certain direction and mature as Christians. There’s a move towards greater integrity or cohesion in our own character, and there’s a move towards greater understanding and gentleness regarding the frailties and weaknesses of other people.
If we look at the passage from Isaiah we can see that the kind of fruits God particularly expects us to manifest are justice and integrity. In fact Isaiah describes those qualities not so much as expectations by God, but as the natural outcome of being faithful to God, in the Covenant. What is true on the level of our individual personal relationship with God should also be true for our community that sincerely worships God and recognises him as the source of our moral principles: just relationships, free from exploitation and domination; just some of the fruits which will grow naturally in our community, as a result of our genuine contact with God.
Inevitably, however, in both the first reading and the gospel, there’s also a more negative implication raised by Isaiah and by Jesus: they criticise their fellow-believers for not responding in the way that they should to God’s involvement with them.
Particularly in the Gospel there’s a tone of warning and threat in Jesus’ language, typical of the style of preaching employed by the Old Testament prophets, claiming that since the community are not producing the fruit that comes from knowing and loving God, God’s Kingdom will be taken from them, and given to other people, who will be receptive to the values of the Kingdom, and will produce the right fruits.
Matthew’s idea in including it in his gospel wasn’t just to disparage the chief priests and the elders. Matthew was addressing his own community – the Christian community – and his aim in this passage was to get the new followers of Christ to ask themselves whether they were producing the fruit they were supposed to.
Jesus’ warning here is also aimed at us: if we don’t produce wholesome fruit, God’s Kingdom will be taken away from us, and given to people who – even if they don’t have an explicit belief in God – are actually doing God’s will by the way they live and the values they put into practice. I am sure we all know someone of that ilk?
Again, it’s not that God has a spiteful streak, or takes pleasure in removing something from us which can only be for our benefit. What this final remark of Jesus implies, really, is that God doesn’t force himself onto people who aren’t interested in him. Nobody can be coerced into having a more profound faith, or growing in holiness, or becoming a more compassionate and loving person.
The rule of God’s Kingdom can only be active in our lives if there’s the effort to actually welcome it and co-operate with it. Christ knew that there were men and women who were doing that, even though they hardly carried out any of the formal religious rules and ceremonies of the time that the religious leaders thought were so important.
I return to the question I posed when I started speaking: What are our fruits as believers?
Most of us can think of ways that in our own specific circumstances we could be become more rooted in the qualities and attitudes that make up the Kingdom – even just becoming more conscious of our need to cultivate the fruits of justice, love and peace; rather than just stagnating. Waking us up to that need, rather than threatening us with the loss of God’s friendship, is the real purpose of the language Jesus and Isaiah use in their parables in today’s readings.
We are challenged to ask Jesus to be with us as the cornerstone of all that we build and cultivate.