The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the longest and most elegantly written books of the Bible. It interprets hundreds of years of Israelite history in light of what God was accomplishing through particular events. Remember, the God of the Israelites, the one, true God, does reveal himself as a distant cosmic force or merely a feeling in our hearts, but as a living, divine person who chooses to act in history, in our world. Prophets like Isaiah interpret the how and why of God’s actions. The Church reverences texts like the Book of Prophet Isaiah, not because they have literary or historical value, but because the Book tells us who God is and what God wants.
Further, by considering how God has acted in history, we have a frame of reference for how God is acting right now and may act in the future.
Today’s Scripture passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is the kind of Biblical texts that makes preachers wince and congregations shift uncomfortably in their seats. Why? Because it is about a recurring theme of Biblical revelation that contemporary Christians find uncomfortable- God’s judgement.
Though we live in a culture that is relentlessly judgmental and ever more unforgiving, we find God’s judgment to be hard to take. Former generations accepted God’s judgment as natural and deserved. Our culture judges God and weighs him in the scale of our expectations.
But I digress…
The Prophet Isaiah turns the gaze of his keen spiritual vision on the Israelites and offer to them an image of a vineyard owner who finds his vineyard to be a bust- the fruit of the vines is unworthy of its purpose- to create fine wine. In fact, all that the vines produce are grapes that are repellent to the taste.
This image of the failed vineyard is interpreted as Isaiah as an image of Israel itself- God established Israel with a particular purpose, and instead of achieving that purpose, Israel has been a disappointment. The purpose of Israel had been to reveal to the nations of power and presence of the one, true God and to invite the nations of the world to know him. But the Israelites had been distracted in this purpose by the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors and thus the fruit of their relationship with God had soured.
And here is where it gets uncomfortable for the Israelites: God weighs the Israelites in the scales of his judgment and finds them wanting. He will withdraw from Israel their God given mission and purpose- and without that mission and purpose, the vineyard of Israel will be laid waste, become a ruin.
Biblical prophecy testifies that this dire prophecy, the destruction of the vineyard, will come to fruition in the terrifying events of 587 BC, when the armies of Babylon will invade and lay waste to the lands of the Israelites and the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites will lose everything that God had given them that was supposed to lead the nations to God- their land, their king, the temple, their way of life. They had given these things over to pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors and now they would reap a bitter, sour harvest of desolation.
What are we to make of this? What might this mean for us?
The Church presents the Old Testament to us, not just to teach us about the past, but to illuminate the present. The story of Israel has become for us Christians the story of the Church and thus when we hear about Israel and the Israelites our reference point for understanding is the Church.
The meaning of this text is discerned in reference to the Church, which in Christ is the new Israel with us Christians being new Israelites. Thus, the vineyard in Isaiah’s vision is understood as the Church and the warning of judgment is for us.
Are we allowing the Church to fulfill her mission and purpose, not a mission and purpose that we think it should be, but the mission and purpose Christ has given us? Do we use the Church to get what we want or to serve our ideological, political, economic or cultural interests? Is the Church simply a means to our own end, our objectives, our goals? If so, the vineyard is in danger. The warning of Isaiah is for us!
Our second scripture is an excerpt from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
The Apostle Paul testifies that our anxiety about the world, our lives, our salvation, can be assuaged if we seek those attitudes, behaviors, ideals that are Christ-like. Truth and honor. Justice and purity. Beauty and grace. Peace of mind and heart comes from these things.
The lesson? The world testifies that peace comes and anxiety is assuaged if we order our lives in accord worldly attitudes, behaviors, and ideals. These attitudes, behaviors and ideals do not seek to know and emulate Christ, but possess wealth, pleasure, power and honors. Rather than Christ, we esteem the politician, the celebrity, the financier and order our desires accordingly. Would we not be happier if we had what they had? Less anxious? At peace?
It is all a lie and deep down we know it. There are perhaps no other things in the world that generate more anxiety and conflict than wealth, pleasure, power and honors. How many lives are wasted and destroyed by these things!
St. Paul testifies that there is another way- the way of a disciple of the Lord Jesus- and he invites us to accept this way as our own. Wealth, pleasure, power and honor can all be redeemed by Christ, but in order for this to happen, we must know him, and prioritize in our lives, not the attainment of worldly concerns, but knowing and serving Christ.
Finally, Christ the Lord echoes the words of the Prophet Isaiah, for he speaks of the vineyard, yes of Israel- for he testifies to his rejection by his own people, but like the text from Isaiah, the vineyard of which Christ speaks is not just for our understanding to be Israel long ago, but of ourselves.
Christ testifies that the vineyard of the Lord is unproductive because of unproductive workers. These workers would do violence to God’s prophets and would even harm God’s beloved Son.
We may understand ourselves as those workers. Christ’s judgment falls on us.
The owner of the vineyard knows if we are unproductive or hostile.
Some might protest: That we as Christians might be inclined to do violence to Christ, to refuse him, to reject him, seems absurd. How could we ever hurt him?
But remember: Christ’s Body does not dwell simply in a heaven far away, but he is with us as he promised- in the suffering bodies of the poor, in the Sacraments that bear his life and presence into the world, and in the Church, which is not merely an institution or a corporation, but his Body- the continuation of his Incarnation in the here and now.
How do we treat the poor? Christ suffers in those bodies? Do our actions and attitudes demonstrate reverence for Christ in his Sacraments? We do not receive in the Sacraments mere symbols, but Christ’s life and presence. How do we treat the Church? The Church continues to bear the revelation of Christ into the world?
The judgment of God is never popular or easy, but it is necessary because it tells us the truth that we might be content to ignore- the very truth that can save us and set us free.