The Church’s first scripture for Holy Mass today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah is perhaps the most frequently cited prophet in the Lectionary for the Church’s Sunday and weekday Masses. Remember, the Lectionary is the book that contains all the biblical readings for the Church’s worship. The scripture passages chosen for the Church’s worship are all intended to introduce us to the Lord Jesus and lead us to a more complete and deeper understanding of who the Lord Jesus is and what he expects us to do.
The Lectionary is not the Bible. The Lectionary contains excerpts from the Books of the Bible, while the Bible is a library of books that present to us the revelation of the one, true God in the form of stories, poems, histories, treatises, and letters.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the longest Books in the Bible and one of the most beautiful. It spans hundreds of years of Israelite history and was written as a profound reflection on how God acted to lead his people through often cataclysmic circumstances. As the Israelites resisted God, worshipped the false gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, they delivered themselves into the hands of their enemies. The Israelites were unfaithful, yet despite their rejection of God, God remained faithful- and was willing to lift them out of the pit of destruction that they had dug for themselves.
Everything that they had deemed important, all their attachments to the false gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, were stripped away from them- all of it, until all that remained was their faith in God, for it is through faith in God, not through our worldly desires and attainments that humanity is restored and redeemed.
Today the Prophet Isaiah presents a story, really a parable. And the story is about a vineyard, around which the owner built a wall, and within which the owner has built a tower, but when the time for the harvest came, he found the vines he had planted were unproductive, and as a result, the vineyard is laid waste- it is destroyed.
The prophet explains that the vineyard is Israel, the vines planted are the Israelites, and the wall represents the fortifications of the city of Jerusalem and the tower is the temple- all this was destroyed in the year 587 BC by the armies of Babylon and Isaiah is providing a theological interpretation of that event in the form of a story.
Israel had weakened itself through the worship of false gods. Enamored with wealth, pleasure, power and honors, the Israelites were unproductive in their true mission, which was to lead the world to right worship, introduce the world to the one, true God, and draw all people into a unique way of life that was pleasing to God. So that the Israelites could do their mission, God gave them the land, a king, a temple and a holy city- but all this was given to the Israelites by God, not so that the Israelites could do whatever they wanted- it was all given for the sake of their mission.
Unproductive in their mission, caught up the worship of false gods, distracted by their desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors, they were overcome by their enemies and lost everything.
This is the meaning of Isaiah’s story. He is telling the Israelites how to understand the terrible events that actually happened in 587 BC and he is insisting that they understand that what happened was not just about politics or economics, but about idolatry, about what happens when you refuse the mission God gives to you and worship false gods.
Whatever immediate benefit we might experience when we give our lives over to false gods, the long term consequences are devastating.
That is Isaiah’s lesson for Israel and for us!
Christ the Lord has the story told by Isaiah in mind in his own parable that you heard this morning in his Gospel.
As difficult as Isaiah’s story was to take, Christ the Lord makes the story even more harsh and terrifying.
The vineyard established by the Lord God, with its wall and its tower- the holy city and the temple, has been taken over by those who were supposed to tend the vines and in due season, deliver the harvest to the owner of the vineyard- the Lord God.
The workers are not doing their mission and instead they are in open rebellion- and despite the repeated appeals from the vineyard owner to surrender, they become all the more obstinate. Finally, in a last ditch effort to save the situation from a cataclysmic outcome, the vineyard owner sends his only Son, but in the fury of their resistance, the workers in the vineyard kill him. Rather than give themselves over to service to the Lord God, they will do everything in their power to resist him, even if it means attempting to kill him.
Christ begs the question- what will the owner of the vineyard do? The answer is devastating.
Christ is indicating in his parable that the events of 587 BC will repeat themselves and the Israelites will again face the loss of everything they have come to value. Clearly, what Christ foresees are the horrific events of 70 AD, when the Romans will unleash the full force of their military might against the Israelites and destroy Jerusalem and its temple.
Christ is anticipating this event and warning his fellow Israelites that there is still time to repent, to change, to do their mission.
But time is running out.
I know all this is unsettling and makes one very uncomfortable. For most, even believers, we do not have the biblical vision through which Isaiah and, Christ the Lord himself, saw, received and interpreted the world.
We are accustomed to keep God at a distance from the world and are hesitant to do precisely what Isaiah and Christ the Lord do in their stories- discern how God involves himself in real world events and circumstances. The very idea that sin has consequences is not one that even many believers are willing to accept.
The purpose of God is to dispense us from responsibility for our actions or look the other way. Even if we maintain that God is involved in the world, when bad things happen, there is never a need to repent, because God only does pleasant things, the rest is just an accident- or somebody else’s fault, not our own.
Is not God all merciful? This is how re-assure ourselves. The answer is yes, but Christ the Lord reveals that just as extreme as his mercy are also his demand that we do what he asks us to do.
The grace of a new way of life in Christ is not about evading responsibility, but about accepting responsibility for what we have done and failed to do.
So what does Isaiah’s story and Christ the Lord’s parable have to do with us?
I will tell you.
Israel and the Church are one reality. This is the great mystery of our faith revealed by Christ the Lord. The reason we read the Bible from cover to cover, both Old and New Testament, is not because we are interested in ancient history, but because the story of Israel that is related to us in the Old Testament is continued in the New Testament. The Church is a new kind of Israel, transformed and re-created by Christ, and thus when the Scriptures speak of Israel, they are speaking about the Church.
This means that both Isaiah’s story and Christ the Lord’s parable are not just about events that happened long ago, or about somebody else, the story and the parable are about us. The warning is for us- right now.
The vineyard is the Church, the wall that surrounds us are our beliefs and practices, beliefs and practices given to us by Christ the Lord himself, and the tower is the new temple, which is the Mass. We are planted in that vineyard to yield fruit, which are the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. Yet when the owner of the vineyard comes, what kind of fruit will he find growing? What will we have produced? What he wanted? Or the bitter fruits that grow from the seeds of our own egoism and idolatry?
Remember, the Church does not belong to us. It does not belong to the pope or the bishops. It does not belong to the clergy and religious. And it does not belong to the laity. The Church belongs to Christ, not any of us, and if we are called into the Church, chosen by Christ for the Church, our mission is not self-directed, but our mission is what Christ the Lord wants us to do. The Church is Christ’s kingdom and he alone is the king.
When we think that we own the Church, that we decide the mission, then the Church becomes first unproductive and then a ruin- like the vineyard in Isaiah’s story.
Further, we need to take Christ’s parable to heart, even if it causes us much anguish.
There has been a lot of mischief in the Church as a result of believers trying to seize the Church for the purpose of promoting their own causes and agendas. And worse, there are some who would even deny Christ’s own Lordship over his Church, seeking to drive him out, by killing the memory of who he really and truly is- making him into someone he is not by rejecting the great mystery of his revelation as the one, true God.
After all, if he is not the Lord of the Church, then maybe we can be, and then we can use the Church for our own purposes.
Whatever immediate needs are satisfied by this scheming, the long term consequences are disastrous.
This would all be impossible for us to bear, if not for the truth, that even in this moment, we can still repent, we can change, we can give up our resistance and scheming and do the mission that the Lord has asked us to do.
The only difference between our own story of the Church right now and the story of the Church in Isaiah and in Christ’s parable is that our story can have a very different ending.
And that’s the Good News!