27th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 5:1–7; Philippians 4:6–9; Matthew 21:33–43
Strings and bridges The Parable of the Vineyard Owner serves as a summary of the history of our salvation by God.
The Melrose Suspension Bridge spans the Niagara River in New York and links Canada and the United States.
They say the bridge was built in this way: First a kite was flown across the river. Attached to the kite was a piece of string. Attached to the string was a rope. And to the rope was attached a steel cable. The steel cable was then used to get the rest of the bridge in place.
The story of the Melrose Bridge is often used to illustrate how great things often have humble beginnings.
Storytelling has been popular ever since human beings learned to put words together to form sentences. Few ancient people were able to read or write. Whenever they wanted to teach something important, they made up a story about it. This made the teaching not only easy to learn but also easy to remember.
Jesus probably told more stories than most teachers. His stories are called parables. Someone has cleverly described a parable as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
For all practical purposes, the parables of Jesus fall into two categories: window parables and mirror parables.
A window parable is a simple story that teaches about God or God’s kingdom. It is a “verbal window” through which we can look to get an insight into God or God’s kingdom.
A window parable often begins with the words “The kingdom of God is like.”
An example of a window parable is Jesus’ story of the Lost Sheep. It compares a shepherd’s concern for a lost sheep to his Father’s concern for a sinner. The shepherd goes out to search for the stray. When he finds it he doesn’t tie it to a tree and punish it. He carries it home, lovingly, on his shoulders. Jesus’ point is that his heavenly Father treats sinners the same way.
And so window parables are stories that give us an insight into God or his kingdom.
Mirror parables, on the other hand, are stories that act as “verbal mirrors.” That is, they give us an insight into ourselves. Jesus constructed these parables in such a way that people in his parable represented people in his listening audience. In other words, people listening to Jesus were able to see themselves in one of the characters in the parable.
Today’s Parable of the Vineyard Owner is a good example of this. Jesus directed it primarily to the chief priests and the Pharisees, that is, the religious leaders of Israel.
Let’s now look more closely at this parable to see how it served as a mirror for the chief priests and the Pharisees. Let’s look at the parable’s cast of characters and see who Jesus intended them to represent in real life.
The vineyard owner, of course, is God. The vineyard, as today’s first reading shows, is the people of Israel. The vineyard tenants are the leaders of Israel.
The first group of slaves, sent by the owner, are the early prophets God sent to Israel. The second group of slaves are the later prophets God sent to Israel. The owner’s son, who was killed, is Jesus.
The new tenant farmers, to whom the owner leases the vineyard, are the apostles of Jesus. They are the new leaders of God’s people.
The parable’s conclusion, which isn’t included in today’s reading, says, The chief priests and the Pharisees. . . knew that [Jesus] was talking about them. In other words, they looked into the mirror parable and saw themselves. But instead of changing, they continued in their wrong ways.
This brings us to an important question. did Jesus intend this parable to have meaning only for the chief priests and the Pharisees? Not at all. He intended it to have meaning for us, also. And what does the parable say to us? Let me list just four things.
First, it summarizes the complete biblical story of salvation, even to the point of making clear-cut references to the Old Covenant and to the New Covenant. The first leasing of the vineyard refers to the Old Covenant. The second leasing of the vineyard refers to the New Covenant.
Second, the parable affirms that Jesus is the Son of God. The last person sent to the tenant farmers is not another slave. He is the vineyard owner’s own son.
Third, the parable affirms that Jesus’ apostles are the new leaders of God’s people.
And, finally, the parable teaches us about God’s patience with us and our accountability to God. The vineyard owner made three efforts to get the tenant farmers to change their ways. When he saw more patience was futile, he passed judgment on the tenants. He held them accountable for their actions.
It is the same way with God and us. Our heavenly Father is infinitely patient. But the time will come when God’s patience will give way to judgment. We, too, will be held accountable for our actions.
And so today’s parable was not intended merely for the chief priests and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It was intended for us, also.
It summarizes the biblical story of salvation.
It teaches that Jesus is the Son of God.
It teaches that Jesus’ apostles are the new leaders of God’s people.
Finally, it teaches us about God’s great patience toward us, and our own accountability to God.
Let us close with this prayerful thought. We express it in these paraphrased lyrics of a song, written years ago by Richard Wi1son:
Jesus was the storytelling kind. He painted pictures in the mind. It was how he showed people, like you and me, the ways things were supposed to be.
He used the sky. He used the sea. He used the birds. He used the tree. He used whatever he could see.
Storyteller? Yes, Jesus was the storytelling kind. He painted pictures in the mind. It was the way he showed people.like you and me, the way things were supposed to be.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Series II 27th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 5:1–7; Philippians 4:6–9; Matthew 21:33–43
God’s stormy north side We tend to represent things not as they are but as we would like them to be.We do this even of God. Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, there lived in Greece a popular teacher named Aesop.
One reason he was so popular was that he used a lot of stories to teach. He would tell a story and then draw an important truth from it.
For example, one of his stories concerns a dispute between a lion and a man about whether humans are stronger than lions.
The man insists that humans are stronger. To illustrate his point, he takes the lion to a park and points out a statue of a man ripping apart the jaws of a lion with his bare hands. The lion looks at the statue and says, “That’s nothing! It was made by a man.”
Aesop’s point is this: We humans tend to represent things not as they are but as we would like them to be. In other words, we often twist the truth so that it says what we want it to say, rather than what it should say.
Some theologians are concerned that modern Christians are doing that today when it comes to God. They are concerned that we are distorting the biblical idea of God. That is, they are concerned that we are making God over into the kind of person we want God to be.
We are doing this by stressing those attributes of God we like while playing down the ones we don’t like.
For example, we are stressing God’s love and mercy and playing down the fact that God is also a just judge, to whom we will have to give an account of our lives someday.
This brings us to Jesus’ remarkable parable in today’s gospel. I say “remarkable” because few parables are so instructive as it is.
First of all, it summarizes the entire biblical story of salvation. Let me illustrate.
The vineyard stands for the people of Israel, as today’s first reading points out.
The vineyard owner stands for God.
The tenant farmers stand for the chief priests and Pharisees, whom God put in charge of his people.
The servants in the first group, whom the owner sends to the tenant farmers to get his share of the grapes, are the early prophets whom God sent to Israel.
The servants in the second group are the later prophets.
The owner’s son, who is killed by the tenant farmers, is Jesus.
The new tenant farmers, to whom the owner leases his vineyard, are the Apostles of Jesus. They replace the chief priests and Pharisees as the new leaders of God’s people.
Finally, the first leasing of the vineyard refers to the old covenant. And the second leasing of the vineyard refers to the new covenant.
And so the parable is a beautiful summary of the entire biblical story of salvation. It’s a miniature Bible within the Bible. Besides giving us a capsule summary of the biblical story of salvation, the parable also gives us a capsule summary of the biblical view of God.
It shows us both sides of God: the God who is a patient parent and the God who is a just judge.
Like the vineyard owner in the parable, God showed incredible patience with the leaders of Israel. He gave them one opportunity after another to change their ways. He sent prophet after prophet to them.
When it became clear, however, that more patience was futile, God passed judgment on them. God held them accountable for their actions.
We see the same thing in the first reading. It reveals a God who showed incredible patience with his people. But when it became clear that more patience was futile, God passed judgment on them. God held them accountable for their actions.
And so today’s readings show us that God is not only a patient parent who loves us very much, but also a just judge who holds us accountable for our actions.
Jesus, the Son of God, reflects these same two dimensions of God. We sometimes forget that Jesus, like God, has a “stormy north side.”
The same compassionate Jesus who said to the people, “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” Matthew 11:28 also said to those who ignored the needy, “Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire.” Matthew 25:41
And the same gentle Jesus who said to the people, “[L]earn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit” Matthew 11:29 also “made a whip from cords” John 2:15 and drove the money changers from the Temple.
And the same loving Jesus who said, “Those who declare publicly that they belong to me, I will do the same for them before my Father in heaven. But those who reject me publicly, I will reject before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:32–33
And so we find Jesus reflecting the same two dimensions as does God.
The application of all this to our lives is clear. We need to know that God is a patient parent. For too many years God was tragically looked upon as someone who was more eager to punish than to love.
Now, however, the pendulum is in danger of swinging in the opposite direction and giving us an equally distorted picture of God. Distorted pictures, however, aren’t what we need at this moment in history. What we need is truth.
And that’s what we find in today’s readings: the gospel truth about God. God is both a patient parent and a just judge.
Let’s close with a time-honored prayer by Pope Clement XI. It takes into account both aspects of God:
Lord, I believe in you; give me firmer faith. I hope in you; give me surer hope. I love you; make me love you more and more.
I adore you as my first Beginning, and long for you as my last End. I praise you as my constant Benefactor, and call upon you as my gracious Protector.
Guide me in your wisdom, restrain me by your justice, comfort me by your mercy, defend me by your power.
I offer you my thoughts, to be fixed on you; my words, to have you as their theme; my actions, to be done according to your will.
Series III 27th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 5:1–7; Philippians 4:6–9; Matthew 21:33–43
Rejection Don’t let rejection get you down; keep loving.
The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all. Matthew 21:42
Years ago, when theaters still showed short subjects, a popular cartoon series was called Looney Tunes.
A popular character in the series was a romantic skunk named Pepe LePew. Pepe was always falling in love with someone. Every time you turned around, there he was reaching out in love to someone.
Because of his unpleasant odor, however, Pepe’s love was always rejected. But that didn’t stop Pepe. He went right on loving no matter how many times he was rejected.
Pepe never gave up on love; and he never gave up on people. He never grew angry or spiteful even toward people who rejected him in cruel ways. That’s why so many moviegoers grew to love him. It will probably seem inappropriate to some, and even ludicrous to others; but I think Pepe might be used as a kind of image of Jesus.
First, Jesus also loved people and reached out to them in love. Every time you turned around, there was Jesus reaching in love to someone.
It was always a warm, gentle love. But occasionally, as in today’s Gospel it was also a tough love.
That is, it was a love that came not only from the heart but— at the same time frankly, and from the shoulder as love must do at times. It was, however, always genuine love routed in genuine compassion.
Secondly, as in the case of Pepe, Jesus’ love was often rebuffed. And sometimes it was rejected cruelly, even by those whom he loved dearly his own lifelong friends and neighbors.
Recall the shocking episode when Jesus spoke from the heart, but, at the same time, frankly, and from the shoulder in the synagogue in his hometown at Nazareth. Luke writes:
The people . . . were filled with anger. They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town and . . . meant to throw him over the cliff, but he walked through . . . the crowd . . . and went his way. Luke 4:28–30
The ones who rejected Jesus most cruelly, however, were the religious leaders of his day. Jesus confronted them consistently for turning religion into a heartless, self-righteous rule game. Their rejection of Jesus grew so violent that it nailed him to a cross. Now let’s address the third point. Like Pepe, this kind of rejection by people never led Jesus to that point where he gave up on people and stopped reaching out to them. Jesus never got close to being bitter.
He never became resentful or retaliatory. And in the end, Jesus the stone which the builders rejected became the cornerstone of God’s Kingdom and the Savior of the world.
The example of Jesus’ love, and his response to rejection, invites us to do what he did: never to become bitter, never to grow mean-spirited, never to give up on people and life.
And this brings us to each one of us in this Church.
Consider a true life example of how Jesus invites us to respond when people reject us whether that rejection be from stupidity, thoughtlessness, or downright meanness.
On December 7, 1941, as we all know, some 400 Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack.
It lasted two hours and left our Pacific fleet crippled and thousands of young Americans dead.
In a state of near-hysteria, our government rounded up and imprisoned over 100,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and imprisoned them in camps on the West Coast.
In the process, many of these citizens lost their homes, their businesses, and their life savings.
Two small children who were put behind barbed wire in the camp were named Carole and Jim. They became close friends.
When they got out of the camp and reached young adulthood, they married.
I n time they had a little girl, named Kristi. But she was born with her feet twisted. It was as though even nature was venting its anger against them.
But hard work corrected the defect and, by age six, Kristi was walking properly. To strengthen her legs, however, Carole and Jim enrolled Kristi in an ice-skating class.
This meant that Kristi and her mother had to get up at 4:00 A.M. on school days to work out in the ice rink before class.
This courageous effort paid off. Kristi developed not only into a healthy young woman, but also into a world-class figure skater.
In 1992 Carole and Jim Yamaguchi watched Kristi win the gold medal for the United States in figure skating in the Winter Olympics in Canada.
In a sense, we could say that the stone rejected by the builders became a cornerstone of the U.S. women’s Olympic team. The Yamaguchis are just one example of a long line of good people who have been rejected. But instead of letting it defeat them, they did what Jesus did.
The kind of response the Yamaguchis made to rejection is the same kind of response Jesus invites us to make, when people we love reject us.
Jesus invites us not to stop loving people, not to give up on people, not to become mean-spirited.
And if we say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation, we will share the reward Jesus promised: eternal life in the next world and a meaningful life in this world.
This is the Good News in today’s readings. This is the Good News that we celebrate in this liturgy. This is the Good News Jesus wants us to take forth from this Church and share with the rest of the world, especially by our example.