By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
ROME, OCT. 3, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The immediate context of the parable of the murderous tenants of the vineyard is the relationship between God and the people of Israel. It is to Israel that God first sent the prophets and then his own Son.
But similar to all of Jesus’ parables, this story has a certain openness. In the relationship between God and Israel the history of God’s relationship with the whole of humanity is traced. Jesus takes up and continues God’s lament in Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading. It is there that we find the key to the parable and its tone. Why did God “plant a vineyard” and what are the “fruits” that are expected, which God will come to look for?
Here the parable does not correspond to reality. Human beings do not plant vineyards and dedicate themselves to its care for the love of the vines but for their own benefit. God is different. He creates man and enters into a covenant with him, not for his own benefit, but for man’s benefit, out of pure love. The fruits that are expected from man are love of God and justice toward the oppressed: all things that are for the good of man, not God.
This parable of Jesus is terribly relevant to our Europe, and in general to the Christian world. In this context, too, we must say that Jesus has been “cast out of the vineyard,” thrown out of a culture that proclaims itself post-Christian, or even anti-Christian. The words of the vineyard tenants resound, if not in the words at least in the deeds, of our secularized society: “Let us kill the heir and the inheritance will be ours!”
No one wants to hear anymore about Europe’s Christian roots, of the Christian patrimony. Secularized humanity wants to be the heir, the master. Sartre put this terrible declaration into the mouth of one of his characters: “There is nothing in heaven, neither good nor evil, there is no one who can give me orders. […] I am a man, and every man must invent his own path.”
What I have just sketched is a “broadband” application of the parable. But Jesus’ parables almost always have a more “narrow band” application, an application to the individual: they apply to each individual person, not just to humanity or Christendom in general. We are invited to ask ourselves: What fate have I prepared for Christ in my life? How am I responding to God’s incomprehensible love for me? Have I too, by chance, thrown him out of my house, my life; that is, have I forgotten and ignored Christ?
I remember one day I was listening to this parable at Mass while I was fairly distracted. Then came the words of the owner of vineyard: “They will respect my Son.” I started, and I understood that those words were addressed to me personally in that moment. The heavenly Father was about to send me his Son in the sacrament of his body and blood. Did I understand the importance of this great moment? Was I ready to welcome him with respect, the respect that the Father expected? Those words brought me brusquely back from my wandering thoughts.
There is a sense of regret, of delusion in the parable. It certainly is not a story with a happy ending! But in its depths it tells us of the incredible love that God has for his people and for every creature. It is a love that, even through the alternating events of loss and return, will always be victorious and have the last word.
God’s rejections are never definitive. They are pedagogical abandonments. Even the rejection of Israel, which obliquely echoes through Christ’s words — “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” — is of this sort, as is that described by Isaiah in the first reading. We have seen that this danger also threatens Christendom, or at least large parts of it.
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Has God rejected his people? Of course not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. … Did they stumble so as to fall? Of course not! But through their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make them jealous. … For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:1 passim).
On Sept. 29 our brothers celebrated the New Year with the feast of Rosh Hashanah. I would like to take this occasion to offer my wishes for peace and prosperity. With the Apostle Paul I ask that “peace be upon the Israel of God.”[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43.