Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 4)

Wine making is one of those industries that has been around since the ancient world. A number of years ago I had visited the Napa Valley in California. There are numerous vineyards in that area and many tours. What amazed me on one of those tours was how long it took to get the business established and the amount of work that is involved in caring for the vineyard itself.

When someone starts a vineyard they need to find suitable land with appropriate climate and soil, cultivate the land, find the right vines they would like to grow, plant them and then tend them as they grow. It takes three years before they will start producing fruit that can be used for wine.

After every season the vines have to be trimmed back then prepared for the winter, the method of which varies depending on location. After the vines start producing grapes that can be turned into wine, the wine is prepared but it takes a number of years, somewhere between seven or eight, before it is ready for sale. Some say it takes at least 15 years before a new vineyard will reach breaking point on their original investment. Now this is if everything goes as it is supposed to go.

It takes a lot of care and a lot of people to care for and cultivate the vineyard and then the wine-making process. If there is a shortage of workers, of if they are careless and inattentive, things will go wrong and it will take even longer to get the desired results.

The vineyard is a prominent image in the readings for this Sunday’s liturgy. The vineyard becomes a symbol for God’s people Israel, and the church. God is the primary caretaker of the vineyard. This image is clear in the responsorial psalm. The psalmist writes: “A vine from Egypt you transplanted; you drove away the nations and planted it. It put forth its foliage to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.”

Three of today’s readings involve a call to repentance using the image of the vineyard. The first reading, from Isaiah, has the Lord calling for judgment: “Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” The Lord argues that he has been faithful, they have not. Hence justice is no longer present among his people. He says: “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!”

Psalm 80 is a plea for deliverance. The vineyard has been violated. The direct means is not specifically identified. However, typical examples would be war, oppression, social injustice, plague or famine. The cry for help involves acknowledgement that they have not been faithful and a confidence in God’s abiding mercy which fills them with hope. “Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name. O LORD, God of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.”

The gospel recalls Jesus’ parable of the tenants. The vineyard is established by the landowner and given over to tenants to care for it. At harvest time the owner sends servants to collect the fruit but the tenants refuse to give. As the parable progresses, the tenants’ refusal turns to violence as they beat, stone and kill the servants. The owner sends more. The same happens.

Yet the owner does not give up on his people. He decides to send his son thinking they would surely respect him. The obstinacy of the tenants is now fully manifest as “they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”

Jesus concludes by asking his hearers a question: “What will the owner do to those tenants when he comes?” They answer that they will be punished and the vineyard taken away. Jesus then applies the parable to himself as the “stone rejected” that has become the cornerstone. He concludes with a call to repentance in the form of a warning: “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.”

So what do we take from all these readings? Here are some thoughts. God loves his people and has cared for them like a vine growing to a vineyard great and strong. He cultivates and nourishes their lives through covenant, promise and faithfulness. God never gives up on his people even when their sins are numerous and outrageous. His love is so strong that he even sent his Son to call them back.

We as members of the kingdom and caretakers of the vineyard need to regularly repent, trusting in his mercy and faithfulness. St. Paul encourages us in this regard as he urges us not to be anxious about the worries of the world. Rather, he tells us to find peace through prayer and thanksgiving to God, and to seek that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious, concluding “then the God of peace will be with you.”

***

Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.