Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Violence in the Vineyard

Reflections on the Readings
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time - October 2, 2011 - Year A
By Dennis S. Hankins

Violence in the Vineyard

Jesus said, "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 the inheritance.'"

Since the beginning, God has intended his children to live in his garden; that is, his vineyard. It is a place of abundant life. In God's presence is fulness of joy; it is a place where the crown jewel of his creation may cultivate his existence in the freedom as a son and daughter of God. Fruit of a faithful and obedient heart is possible and expected in this vineyard. Protected from marauders, under the watchful and loving eye of God, the residents of this place grow in the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Matthew's gospel is written for the faithful Jewish Christians of his time. So his reflections on the Messiah are based on the reactions of the elders of the people and the chief priests. Again this week we witness what Matthew sees as the growing conflict between Jesus and the leaders of the people. Matthew understands in hindsight why these endless encounters are the prelude to the cross. Today's gospel reading is especially poignant on this reality.

Jesus highlights the history of God's care for his people ever since he brought them out of Egypt. Israel is the vineyard. Like a vine plucked up out of Egypt, Israel was transplanted. Protecting his new garden, God drove out the nations and planted his new vine. In time this vine grew and extended its reach and influence. Served by priests and elders of the people, Israel worshipped God according to the rhythm of feasts and festivals celebrating the mighty acts of God. To Israel belongs the Law, the Temple, the Feasts and the Sacrifices. The envy of the world, even the Queen of Sheba came to the great king, Solomon. Having heard of Solomon's fame, she came to test the wise king with difficult questions.

The Queen did not come empty handed. Her large retinue included camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. Solomon answered all of her questions and there was nothing hidden from him which he could not explain. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all of the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings which he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her. (1 Kings 10:1-5) You might say she was impressed!

In times of spiritual drought, God sent his messengers the prophets. These prophets were not always warmly received. Elijah fled for his life. Jeremiah was stoned. John the Baptist was beheaded. These are the servants who visited the vineyard to remind it of its high calling and to warn it of its loose living. And the tenants took these servants and beat them, stoned them, and killed them. Looking for the fruit of his commandments, the prophets found only violence in the vineyard.

But in the end, God visited his wayward son Israel by sending his only begotten Son. And God said, "Surely, they will revere my Son, and receive the gift my love, and turn again to me and bear the fruit of my calling upon them!" But they took him outside the vineyard and spit on him, and plucked his beard, and made a mockery of him and killed him, leaving his few followers and Mother weeping at the foot of the cross.

The vineyard had seen violence but this violence made the sun cease to shine for the space of three hours. All the blood of every violent and vicious act perpetrated in the vineyard dripped from the Son's body. Being the stone which the builders rejected, the spirit of the Son left his body, and stopping by the curtains to the Holy of Holies, he tore them in two. Violence in the vineyard met God and gave an account. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Jesus told the elders of the people and chief priests he would give the vineyard to a people producing the fruits of it. "Who is that?" you ask. It is the Church. It's you and me. Is there any violence in this vineyard? Sobering, isn't it? James tells us the tongue is a fire; an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, and is set on fire of hell; destroying everything in its violent path. Beasts and birds and dolphins can be tamed by humankind. But the tongue, a restless evil, full of deadly poison, no man can tame. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. James exclaims, "My brethren, this ought not to be so." (James 3:6-12)

I am inspired by the Holy Father's words to the young people of Germany during his recent pilgrimage to his native land. He asked the young people before him to have courage to be saints. Speaking to the theme of light during his pastoral visit, the Pope explained to the young people, "At this point we cannot remain silent about the existence of evil. We see it in so many places in this world; but we also see it - and this scares us - in our own lives. Truly, within our hearts there is a tendency towards evil, there is selfishness, envy, aggression. Perhaps with a certain self-discipline all this can to some degree be controlled. But it becomes more difficult with faults that are somewhat hidden, that can engulf us like a thick fog, such as sloth, or laziness in willing and doing good. Again and again in history, keen observers have pointed out that damage to the Church comes not from her opponents, but from uncommitted Christians."

The violence of evil lurks in the darkness and seeks to engulf us in its ugly and destructive tentacles. But we have a refuge this morning. In the midst of the vineyard, the Church, there is bread, able to satisfy every hungry heart; there is also this cup in which we partake of the power of an endless life. It is the body and blood of Christ - it is the Lord - he who when he was violently reviled and rejected, opened not his mouth. And when time stood still that long ago Friday afternoon, the centurion filled with awe, spoke for all of us, "Truly this was the Son God!" Indeed, truly this is Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Let us say, "Amen," and partake of his peace.

Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. Prior to his uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. You can email him at dennishankins@gmail.com His website is: www.dennishankins.com

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