Saturday 7 October 2017

Sunday, October 8, 2017 - We are tenants, not owners

To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Mt. 21:33-43

A parishioner once narrated to me his experience. Because he was unmarried and was working abroad and his brother was married and had five children, he had rented his two bedroom apartment to his brother on the condition that his brother would leave the apartment when he was asked to do so. As his brother agreed to this condition, he allowed him to stay in the apartment free of cost, because he did not want to burden his brother by charging him rent. A time came when he found the girl he wanted to marry and since he would need his apartment, gently reminded his brother of their agreement and gave him a year’s time to find alternate accommodation. He even offered to help his brother financially. However, his brother refused to move, claiming that since he had stayed in that apartment for more than five years it belonged to him. The case is now in court.

The history of the human race is a history that alternates between failure and ingratitude on the part of human beings and fidelity and reaching out to them on the part of God. The first reading of today from Isaiah reminds us once again of the manner in which God continues to reach out in love. ‘The vineyard’ has often been used in the scriptures as symbol for the nation of Israel but could also be a symbol for the world. This vineyard God planted and nurtured hoping that it would produce the fruits that it should, instead produced wild grapes. When God ought to have found righteousness, he encountered bloodshed, and when he ought to have found justice, he heard the cries of the poor to whom injustice had been done..This is the work of a selfish few and hence the consequences of their selfish actions would be their own destruction.

These few who are selfish and self-centered are also mentioned in the Gospel reading in what is referred to as the parable of the rented vineyard, the murderous tenants and also the wicked husbandmen or vinedressers.

The parable is directed to the chief priests and elders of the people. The introduction echoes Isaiah 5:2 and uses the same words as there. However, here the vineyard is let out to tenant farmers by the landlord who goes away on a journey. This renting out of the vineyard serves to bring out on the one hand the idea that it is given in trust and not ownership, it is given on rent and not for personal possession and on the other hand to indict those to whom it had been rented out at the end of the parable. The repeated sending of the servants by the owner to collect the produce of the vineyard brings out the patience and perseverance of the owner of the vineyard. Despite his servants being treated shamefully and even killed, the owner does not give up, trying to get the tenants to come to their senses and realize their position with regard to the vineyard and him. The fact that he is serious about reaching out to the tenants is made abundantly clear in the sending of his son. However, greed on the part of the tenants led to their killing even the son.

In Isaiah, the consequences of unfaithfulness are the total destruction of the vineyard. In Matthew the tenants are destroyed and the vineyard is taken away to be given to others who will understand their role and do what they are called to do.

It is possible to understand the parable as addressed to the Jewish leaders of the time of Matthew and be content with that interpretation, but it is also possible to widen the vineyard to include the whole world and the tenants to mean each of us. When seen in this manner the world becomes the responsibility of each one of us and we realize that all that we have is given to us in trust. We are not owners of all that we think we possess, but have it in order to use it for the benefit of others and ourselves. Thus, selfishness and self-centeredness and the desire to accumulate more and more are the totally opposite attitudes of what which is expected of us as tenants.

This also means that since the world is given to us in trust, each one of us is responsible for looking after it. Hence environmental pollution of any kind, waste, destruction of nature, the so-called ‘development at any cost’ are all sins that we as tenants can be guilty of. The growing disparity between the rich and the poor, the destruction of forests, rivers and seas, global warming and the like, show that we, as tenants, have not given to the owner of the vineyard the fruits that we were expected to give. Our desire to own the vineyard as our inheritance has led to this state.

The Lord continues to send messages and messengers to us in the hope that we will come to our senses and behave as we ought to. One such message is found in the second reading of today in which Paul reminds the Philippians and is that we can only find peace and harmony when we acknowledge our dependence on God, and consequently our role as tenants and caretakers of his vineyard, our world. If we build up – and not destroy, if we reach out in love and concern for others – not live for our selves, if we are generous – not miserly, then we will have heeded the voice of the owner of the vineyard and will be able to give him his due when it is demanded of us.

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