There is an urgency and clarity about the Gospel for today that is most often lacking in modern Christians, certainly including the clergy. In this Gospel the message is urgent, provocative and clear: there is a day of judgment coming for every one of us and we simply must be ready. The message is a sobering one for a modern world that is often dismissive of judgement, and certainly of Hell. Yet Jesus says clearly that the Kingdom of God can be taken from us for our refusal to accept its fruits in our life.
Parables and images used by Jesus to teach on judgement and the reality of Hell, are often quite vivid, even shocking in their harsh imagery. The are certainly not stories for the easily offended. And they are also difficult to take for those who have tried to refashion Jesus into a rather pleasant sort of fellow whose job is only to affirm, rather than the uncompromising prophet and Lord that He is.
No one spoke of Hell more than Jesus – How to perfectly reconcile these sorts of teachings presented so bluntly with the God who loves us so, points to the deeper mysteries of justice and mercy, and their interaction with human freedom. But this point must be clear: No one loves us more that Jesus and yet no one spoke of Hell and its certainty more than Jesus; no one warned us of judgment and its inescapable consequences more than Jesus. Hence, out of love for us Jesus speaks of death, judgement, heaven and hell. As one who loves us, he wants none of us to be lost. So he warns, he speaks the truth in love.
Historically this parable had meaning for the ancient Jews that has already come to pass. God had established and cared for his vine, Israel. He gave every blessing, having led them out of slavery and establishing them in the Promised Land. Yet searching for the fruits of righteousness he found little. Then, sending many prophets to warn and call forth those fruits, the prophets were persecuted, rejected, even murdered. Finally, God, sent his Son, but he too was murdered. There comes forth a sentence: He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times….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. By 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple, never to be rebuilt.
The Jewish people are not singled out in the Scriptures, for we all, like them, are a vineyard, and their story, if we are not careful can be our own story. We like the ancients, have a decision to make. Either we will accept the offer of the Kingdom and thereby yield to the Lord’s work and bring forth a harvest, or we must face the judgment that we have chosen to reject the offer of the Kingdom. God will not force us to accept his kingship or kingdom. We have a choice to make, and that choice is at the heart of the judgment we will face.
Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel and apply it to the vineyard of our lives.
I. THE SOWING – The text says, There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
Note the care and providence of the Landowner (God) who has given each of us life and every kind of grace. The image of vineyard indicates that we have the capacity to bear fruit, and this signifies the many gifts and talents and abilities that we have been given by God.
The hedge calls to mind the protection of his grace and mercy. Though the world can be a tempting place, he has put a hedge of protection around us which is sufficient for us to remain secure from serious sin, if we accept its power.
But note too a hedge speaks of limits. And thus, God’s protective graces, though sufficient, mean we must live within limits, within the hedge that keeps the wild animals of temptation from devouring the fruits of our vine.
The tower is symbolic the Church, which stands guard like a watchman in a tower warning of dangers for we who live within the hedge. And, the tower which is the Church is also standing forth as a sign of contradiction to the hostile world outside which seeks to devour the fruit of the vineyard.
That the landowner leases the the vineyard is a reminder that we are not our own, we have been purchased and at a price. God and God alone created all these things we call our own. We are but stewards, even of our very lives. We belong to God and must render an account and show forth fruits as we shall next see.
But this point must be emphasized: The care that God has given us, his grace, his mercy, his very own self. As the text from Isaiah says, What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? God loves us and does not want us to be lost. He gives us every grace and mercy we need to make it. The Lord says, As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11). This must be emphasized before we too quickly grumble about the subsequent judgment that comes. God offers every possible grace to save us. It is up to us to accept or reject the help.
II. THE SEEKING – the text says, When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
There come moments in our lives when God looks for fruits. Notice, he is the owner and the fruits are rightfully his. He has done everything to bring forth the fruit and now deserves to see the produce of his grace in the vineyard of our life, which is His own.
And what fruits does the Lord seek? The values and fruits of the Kingdom: faith, justice, love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, chaste lives, love of the poor, generosity, faithfulness, love of one’s family and friends, even love of one’s enemy, kindness, truth, sincerity, courage to speak the truth and witness to the faith, and an evangelical spirit.
Note too the text says he sends servants to obtain the produce. Here also is God’s mercy. Historically God’s “servants” were the prophets. And God sent the prophets not only to bring forth the harvest of justice, but also to remind, clarify, apply God’s Word and warn sinners. God patiently sent many generations of prophets to help Israel.
It is the same for us. God sends us many prophets to remind us, clarify, apply and warn. Perhaps they are priests or religious, parents, catechists, teachers, and role models. But they are part of God’s plan to warn us to bear fruit and to help call forth and obtain some of those very fruits for God. Each in their own way says like St. Paul did in today’s second reading: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (Phil 4:8-9).
Yes, God seeks fruits, rightfully so, and he sends his servants, the prophets, to help call them forth in us.
III. THE SINNING – The text says, But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. 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 his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Thus, despite all God has done, despite sending his servants the prophets, they are all rejected with increasing vehemence. Hearts grow harder. The Landowner, God, even goes so far to demonstrate his love, and will to save, by sending his own Son. But they drag him outside the vineyard and kill him. Yes, Jesus died outside the city gates, murdered for seeking the fruit of faith from the tenants of the vineyard.
And what of us? There are too many who reject God’s prophets. They do so with growing vehemence and abusive treatment. Many today despise the Church, despise the Scriptures, despise fathers, mothers, friends and Christians in general who seek to clarify and apply God’s Word, and warn of the need to be ready. It is quite possible that, for any of us, repeated resistance can cause a hardening of the heart to set in. In the end, there are some, many according to Jesus, who effectively kill the life of God in them and utterly reject the Kingdom of God and its values. They do not want to live lives that show forth forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies, chastity, justice, love of the poor, generosity, kindness, witness to the Lord and the truth.
We ought to be very sober of their are many, many today who are like this. Some have merely drifted away and are indifferent. (Some we must say, have been hurt or are struggling to believe, but at least they remain open). Yet still others are passionate in their hatred for the Church, Scripture and anything to do with God, and they explicitly reject many, if not most of the kingdom values listed above. We must be urgent to continue in our attempt to reach them as we shall see.
IV. THE SENTENCE – The text says, What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” 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.“
Here then is the sentence – If you Don’t want the Kingdom, you don’t have to have it. At one level, it would seem to us that everyone wants the Kingdom, i.e. everyone who has any faith in God at all, wants to go to heaven. But what is heaven? It is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. It is not just a place of our making, it that place where the will of God, where the Kingdom values are in full flower. But as we have seen, there are many who do not want to live chastely, do not want to forgive, do not want to be generous and love the poor, do not want God or any one else at the center, do not want to worship God.
Self excluded – having rejected the Kingdom values, and having rejected the prophets who warned them, many simply exclude themselves from the Kingdom. God will not force the Kingdom on anyone. If you don’t want it, even after God’s grace and mercy, his pleading through the prophets, you don’t have to have it. It will be taken from you, and given to those who do want it and appreciate its help.
The existence of Hell is rooted essentially in God’s respect for our freedom. For we have been called to love. But love must be free, not compelled. Hence, Hell has to be. It is the “alternative arrangements” that others make in their rejection of the Kingdom of God. At some point God calls the question, and at death our decision is forever fixed.
Yes, Hell, and the judgment that proceeds it, is clearly taught here and in many other places by Jesus (e.g. Matt 23:33; Lk 16:23; Mk 43:47; Matt 5:29; Matt 10:28; Matt 18:9; Matt 5:22; Matt 11:23; Matt 7:23; Matt 25:41; Mk 9:48; Luke 13:23; Rev 22:15; and many, many more). And it is taught by a Lord who loves us and wants to save us, but who is also sober to our stubborn and stiff-necked ways.
What is a healthy response to this teaching? To work earnestly for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own. Nothing has so destroyed evangelization and missionary activity, as the modern notion that everyone goes to heaven. Nothing has so destroyed any zeal for the moral life or hunger for the Sacraments, prayer and Scripture. And nothing is so contrary to Scripture as the dismissal of Hell and the notion of all going to heaven.
But rather than panic or despair, we ought to get to work and be more urgent to win souls for Christ. Who is it that the Lord wants you to work with to drawn them back to him. Pray and ask him, “Who Lord?” The Lord does not want any to be lost. But, as of old, he still sends his prophets (this means you) to draw back whoever will listen. Will you work for the Lord? Will you work for souls? For there is a day of judgment looming, and we must be made ready by the Lord for it. Will you be urgent about it, for your self and others?
Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Roure
This video features the words of an old spiritual: Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last. I made this video more than a year ago and in it there is a picture of Fr. John Corapi preaching. Since I made it long before “the recent troubles” please do not attribute any meaning from me by the inclusion of the photo, it is simply indicative of the “age” of the video.