27th SUNDAY (A) October 4, 2020

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Happy St Francis Day to our Franciscan brothers and sisters. Inspired by Francis and our Pope Francis, may we be more reverent towards the world God has created for us.

In our Lectionary, which provides the Sunday readings, the Isaiah text is printed to look like the poem it was in the original. In rich imagery, a friend of God speaks on God's behalf to us. But what starts as a love song turns discordant at the end.

The first part of the reading describes a careful preparation for a vineyard. Then the vintner asks, "What more could I do?" Having heard the preparation of the vineyard, we would answer, "Nothing more!" We cannot ignore this initial message of the poem. God has shown tender love for the people and has prepared them well: "...spaded, planted and cleared." Which makes us ask: Do we notice God’s loving care in our lives? God is not aloof, but is nurturing and giving us every opportunity for fruitfulness – for us individuals, but also for the believing community, the church.

God sounds like a parent who, after spending years giving an offspring the best family environment and education possible, learns that the child has gotten in trouble. “What more could I have done to prevent this?”, the parent laments. The narrator’s voice returns at the end of the passage to make sure there are no doubts about the application of this story. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel... God looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!”

In Isaiah’s parable, the vineyard itself is a disappointment – it “yielded wild grapes.” Now where did these come from since it was planted with “the choicest vines” and lovingly tended? The owner certainly didn’t ignore this vineyard. It seems to be the vineyard’s doing. This is a parable and in such stories, even a vineyard can be cantankerous and rebellious. It’s the vineyard’s fault, the prophet tells us.

An Israelite could not hear a story about a vineyard without knowing that the vineyard was an often-used metaphor for the house of Israel. The people knew that God had chosen, planted, tended and promised to watch over them. Since they would know the parable applied to them, Isaiah invites “the inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah” to respond to God’s questioning lament, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” Failure to yield good fruits was not due to God’s holding back, or stinting on the vineyard. The people are invited to pass judgment and the judgment applies to them.

In Isaiah justice means fair and equitable relationships in a community that has, as its base, the justice of God. This justice is expressed through honest dealings with one another; it fails when a more powerful class of people takes advantage of the weaker. If we are in good relationship with God, then from that relationship will come fidelity in doing the works God expects of us: works of justice in the community. Such should be the characteristics of a people “under God.” And of a nation that claims to be “under God.” The prophet suggests that failure of justice/righteousness will lead to disaster for God's people.

The love poem ends with a powerful indictment that its audience must apply to itself. It stops short of actually pronouncing the judgment, implying there still is time to change and conform to God's ways. As always, you can hear the God of love, who raised up a people out of slavery, reminding the people what is expected of them if they are truly to be God's people. They must be a just people, unlike the people of other gods. In their midst the poor are to be cared for and justice is to prevail – a sure sign that this nation has a different kind of God who sees to the needs of the poor, the orphaned and the widowed.

We have our modern Isaiahs, powerful prophetic voices to lead us in God's ways. Notice, for example, how frequently our Pope and bishops have spoken out against violence in the world, the arms trade, on behalf of the poor, for the care of creation, etc. For example, as we draw closer to the national elections, here is a statement made by the American Catholic bishops at their national meeting in 1998:

“As citizens in the world’s leading democracy, Catholics in the United States have special responsibilities to protect human life and dignity and to stand with those who are poor and vulnerable. We are called to welcome the stranger, to combat discrimination, to pursue peace and to promote the common good. Catholic social teaching calls us to practice civic virtues and offers us principles to shape participation in public life. We cannot be indifferent to or cynical about the obligations of citizenship. Our political choices should not reflect simply our own interests, partisan preferences or ideological agendas, but should be shaped by the principles of our faith and our commitment to justice, especially to the weak an vulnerable.”

We church members call ourselves, “God’s people,” the “vineyard of the Lord of hosts.” The Isaian parable should certainly speak and challenge us. We trace our faith life to its origins in God, who planted the seed of the Christ-life in us; nourished it by the scriptures and sacraments and gave us prophetic witnesses, parents and teachers. God has also protected that life within us when it was stressed and tested; renewed it when we wandered and caused it to grow at the most unexpected times. So, the first thing we do at this Eucharist is remember with gratitude and thanks our caring and nourishing God.

But we have to ask the Isaian question too. After all God has done for us, what fruits will God find at vintage time? “God looked for judgment, but see bloodshed! For justice, but hark the outcry.” We “people of God,” we “the vineyard of the Lord” – do our poor receive preferential option; is there discrimination in our assemblies against the aged, disabled, gays, women, the undocumented, etc? Are our laity involved in decision making? Is there open disclosure of financial matters? Are the home-bound made to feel part of our community? Do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned?

The table set before us is a meal for all, for the rich, the poor, the powerful and the weak to eat the same food. The life of Jesus is given to us today to form us into a community that puts the usual ways of judging aside. We have to be sure to practice in our lives what we do at this Eucharist. If there are no distinctions here in our worshiping community, then there are no distinctions outside.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: