A neighbour of mine just moved to BC. His name is Richard. He bought a house on about an acre of land, and it had a small vineyard on it. I got an e-mail from him the other day saying that after tending his vineyard all year and stockpiling empty wine bottles, all of his grapes were destroyed by mildew. So he will have no grapes this year and the treatment for the mildew will probably destroy next year’s crop as well. As you can imagine, he is very disappointed, but he said in a good-natured way that he will have to support the local wine industry this year.
I thought about Richard and his little vineyard as I reflected on the first reading today. Isaiah spoke about a very conscientious land owner who planted a vineyard. In fact, he was more than conscientious – Isaiah calls his story of the land owner and his vineyard a love song – the land owner loved his vineyard. He had excellent soil and found the best vines. And despite all his hard work, the vineyard produced wild grapes – grapes that were sour and not usable. So in his anger, he destroyed the vineyard. The vineyard had failed him.
When Isaiah was talking about the land owner and the vineyard, he was, of course, talking about God and the people of Israel. God had led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt and settled them in their own land – a rich land flowing with milk and honey. And yet they turned to other gods. Just as the vineyard had failed the land owner, the people of Israel had failed God, and Isaiah was telling them that they would be punished, just like the land owner destroyed the vineyard. In Isaiah’s description of the people of Israel, we see first, love (the love of God), then sin, and then judgment.
Isaiah’s story is relevant even today. I have some friends who raised their children in a very loving and supportive environment. They weren’t wealthy, but they were good and loving providers. Most of the children grew up as you would have expected, but one fell into a life of alcohol and drug use. In the end he ran into trouble with the law and spent time in jail. So we see the same pattern of love, then sin – turning away from love – and judgment.
In the Gospel, Jesus told a similar story. He talked about a loving land owner who carefully planted and protected his vineyard and then handed it over to tenants who would look after the crop, harvest it, and give the land owner the produce. And we heard how the tenants treated the people the land owner sent – even to the point of killing the land owner’s son. Now, I understand that this is a parable, but I’ve always thought that the killing of the land owner’s son was a bit extreme, even for a parable. But, apparently, if the land owner had died without leaving an heir, the tenants would have inherited the land, so the story does make some sense. As in the story from Isaiah, we see the pattern of love (the land owner actually planted the vineyard himself – he did all the hard work), then sin, and then judgment – we heard that the land owner would put the tenants to a miserable death.
In Isaiah’s parable, it was the vineyard that betrayed the land owner (the people of Israel had turned away from God). In Jesus’ parable, it was those put in charge of the vineyard who betrayed the land owner. Jesus was talking about the chief priests and the Pharisees – and they would take God’s own son and kill him. It is an important distinction, because Matthew is not telling us that the Jewish people killed God’s son – but rather, it was those put in charge of the vineyard – the religious leaders of the time, who were responsible.
Now both of the parables we heard today are very dramatic stories that began with love, turned to sin, and resulted in a harsh judgment. And I told you the story of my friends’ son whose life followed that same pattern. And we say to ourselves: “I would never do anything that terrible.” And I don’t think any of us would. But we turn away from our loving God every time we sin. In the Gospel, the tenants were guilty of jealousy and greed. How often do we envy the things that other people have? How often, in our greed, do we take more than we need – ignoring the needs of others? The Pharisees rejected Jesus’ call to love their neighbours as they had been loved by God. How often do we put ourselves before others – push to the front of the line – try to get the best of everything at the expense of others?
Jesus calls us to love our neighbours as he loved us – every day – and God gives us opportunities to love our neighbours as he loved us – every day – sometimes in big ways, but more often in small ways.
I’ve mentioned several times the pattern of love, sin, and judgment. I think we all have some understanding of God’s love for us. And we are all probably too familiar with sin. But the idea of judgment is scary.
So how do we deal with the knowledge that we will be judged for our actions? St. Paul gives us some wonderful advice today. He said: “Do not worry about anything.” In some translations, this reads: “Have no anxiety at all.” He says we should let our requests be known to God –in other words, we should pray. And then he says: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” In other words, while we are all born in God’s love, and we will all be judged, turning to sin does not have to happen.
I sometimes talk with people after the death of a family member. There are times when I see the fear – the anxiety. They worry that their loved one had turned away from God and they worry how they will be judged.
And then there are other times when the family has – as St. Paul would say – “no anxiety at all.” I was privileged to preside at the wake service for Therese Heltman on Thursday night. I listened to the loving words and music of her children and her grandchildren, and although there was sadness at the passing of this wonderful and holy woman, there was: “no anxiety at all.” Rather, there was peace.
Today’s readings tell us about loving land owners who created their vineyards with care, but the outcome of their labours could not always be predicted. The readings remind us that we have our beginnings in God’s love, and that throughout our lives, we have the choice to act with love or to turn away – in fact, we have many choices every day. The readings tell us that if we choose to respond to God’s great love by turning away – by turning to sin, our judgment will be harsh. But if we respond to God’s love with love, we will be freed from all fear – from all anxiety – and we will know the peace of God – the peace that surpasses all understanding.