October 6, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 5:1-7) Reading II (Philippians 4:6-9)
Gospel (St. Matthew 21:33-43)
In both the first reading and the Gospel today, we hear about a vineyard, and it is the vineyard of the Lord. And about this vineyard, we are told that God planted the choicest vine, that He put up a wall and a tower. He took care of everything. He spaded the vineyard; He planted the best; He watered it; He took care of it the way it should be taken care of. And when He looked for the grapes, it produced wild grapes. In the Gospel reading in the parable of Our Lord, when God sent His servants, the prophets, and then sent His own Son to the tenants who were to be taking care of the vineyard, they responded by not giving the produce they had produced. They wanted it only for themselves. They killed all the prophets, and finally they threw the Son out of the vineyard and killed Him as well.
Now what does this have to do with us? We are the New Israel. We are told in the first reading that the vineyard of the Lord is the House of Israel, and we are the New Israel. If the prophet Isaiah were alive today he would say the vineyard of the Lord is the Roman Catholic Church. God planted the choicest vines, He built a tower- the bishops, He put up a wall - the priests, and He put the best vines that He could find, the holy people that He had chosen for Himself. They were to be protected; they were to be watched over; they were to be provided with everything necessary to provide only the best of fruit for God. But those in the watchtower have not been watching. They did not protect the vineyard from the wild boar and the animals that tried to destroy it and from the marauders who would steal. Those who were supposed to be the protective wall have not been protecting the vineyard; they have allowed everything and anything to come in and to destroy and to plunder. These are also the tenants, but not just the priests and the bishops; in this case, those who are the vines are also the vinedressers. That is, each one of us here, each and every Catholic person, is supposed to not only be the vine but the one who tends the vine. Each one of us is supposed to produce great fruit for the Lord, and we are supposed to give Him His share of the fruit at its proper time. His share of the fruit is all of it. In turn, He will give to us everything we need. We tend to look at it the other way, that is, we want what we want first, and if there is something left over we will give it to the Lord. Instead, we are to be doing everything for the Lord, knowing that if we are giving everything to Him out of love, that in return, out of love, He will give to us everything we need.
But when the Lord looks to His vineyard, and He looks for the produce and He looks for the best grapes because He put in the best vines, what is He finding? He is finding watchmen who have fallen asleep, or indeed, watchmen who have willfully invited in those who are going to destroy. He has found a broken wall rather than a strong wall that is going to keep out all the elements that are going to invade and destroy His vineyard. And He has found that His vines have not been producing good fruit.
And so we are told, in both the Gospel and the first reading today, that if this is going to happen, God is going to take away His vineyard and He is going to give it to someone else. That is what we see happening. If we look at what is going on in the world today, on one level we have to say that those who are bearing the fruit for God in many ways are not the Catholics. In many ways, Catholics have become the wimpiest Christians of all. We are afraid to stand up for the truth. We are afraid to speak out. We are afraid to tell people about Jesus Christ; we are embarrassed about the Lord. We refuse to stand up and be counted because it is a whole lot easier just to be silent, even when we do not agree with what everybody else is doing. We do not want to make any waves or, worse yet, we want to be just like everyone else. Therefore, we deny Jesus Christ in order to have what we want. On the other hand, we can look at some of the evangelical Christians who are zealous for the Lord, who are out telling people about Jesus Christ, who are doing good work in the vineyard. One could look and wonder if the Lord has in fact handed over His vineyard to someone else who would produce good fruit because the vines and the tenants have not.
This does not mean we ought to despair, because Saint Paul, in the second reading, told us that we are not to be anxious about anything. This is still the Lord's vineyard and you are still His choice vine - and you are still to bear good fruit for the Lord. Now the wonderful thing about God is that even if the whole vineyard is producing wild grapes, He is still going to look at each individual vine to look at its fruit and to see if it is still bearing good fruit. He will rejoice in that one vine, and He will receive all of the good produce. He will care for that one vine and He will rejoice in it exultantly, and He will continue to take care of it. In fact, if we just think about it, if you have a whole vineyard that is filled with good vines producing good fruit, the fruit that one vine produces really does not stand out very much, but if you have a vineyard which is producing a lot of bad fruit and you have one vine which is producing good fruit, it stands out very clearly in the eyes of the owner of the vineyard. And so, it is an opportunity that we have today, more than any other time in the history of the Church, to be able to be counted, to be able to produce good fruit for the Lord which is going to bring great joy to all of the hosts of Heaven, because we recognize that those in the watchtower are not producing good fruit, those who make up the wall are not keeping the world and all the destructive forces out, most of the vines are not producing good fruit for the Lord, but we can. The grace is all there. God picked the choicest vines and He did everything necessary, and the opportunity is there for us to produce good fruit for the Lord. We need to do exactly what Saint Paul told us in the second reading today: We need to keep our focus on that which is good, beautiful, just, true, excellent, perfect, and so on - all the various attributes he spoke about - because that is the way we are going to produce.
There is ultimately only One who has all of those attributes, and that is Our Lord Himself. So if we keep our focus on the Lord, we will bear good fruit. And if we are willing to stand up and be counted, not to be just like the other vines in the vineyard, but to stand up and say, "I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Lord Himself is the center of my life and He is what is most important to me. I will not be embarrassed of Him. I will not shy away when it comes to the truth. I will not become like everyone else just to fit in and be liked, but I am going to stand up for Jesus Christ in the face of all of the elements that are gravitating against Him."
Now we must do this in humility. And that is very critical because if we look at it and say, "Now, I as a vine can stand out and the vineyard Owner is going to notice me!" that is the wrong reason. You will be noticed but it must be in humility, because if it is in pride, all of the nice foliage we have and the vine that looks so healthy is going, once again, to produce bad fruit because it will be selfish. We need to be producing fruit for the Lord and it needs to be for Him, not for ourselves. That is the challenge for each of us: to make sure that what we are doing is doing the right thing for the right reason.
The wonderful thing we have is the guarantee from the Lord that He would not abandon us, that He would not leave us orphans, that He would remain with us all days until the end of the world, that He would give us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, and that the jaws of hell will not prevail against His Church. And so even though in the Gospel reading and in the first reading it would seem that He is going to remove everything and give His vineyard over to others, the reality is that He will not because He has made a promise that He will not. Nonetheless, He is still going to require that we will be vigilant on His arrival, that we are going to produce good fruit. It is not enough to be able to sit back and say, "We are part of the Lord's vineyard, therefore, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die! We have nothing to worry about. It's all taken care of; our salvation is guaranteed because the Lord has chosen us." The Lord has chosen us to go out and bear fruit and He is going to require that of us. If He finds us sitting back lounging when He arrives, and having borne no fruit, or very little fruit, or wild fruit, it will not be a good day for us.
We need to be busy about the work of the Lord. We have the opportunity to become great saints. That is the kind of fruit He is looking for; that is the kind of vine He is seeking: people who desire to be saints, people who desire to work in His vineyard, to be tenants who are going to tend the vines and who are going to produce fruit for the Lord. That is what He has chosen each one of us to do. The question simply is, are we willing to do it? Are we willing to actually stand up and be counted for the Lord? Are we willing to do whatever it is that the Lord wants us to do no matter how difficult, how ridiculous, or how insane it might sound to us at the time? What the Lord asks is always the best and we are not to argue with Him; we are not to try to tell Him how He is to run His vineyard. But rather, we are to look around and try to help the other vines as much as we can, to tend them, to prune them, to help them. And we are to be bearing good fruit ourselves.
The Lord is the vineyard Owner; He will take care of His vineyard. He will deal with those in the watchtower; He will deal with those who are supposed to provide the protection; but He will also deal with his vines. In the meantime, He is asking that we would also tend the vine and make sure that the vine is going to produce good fruit. So in the midst of all the chaos that is going on in the vineyard of the Lord, He is asking that at least some would be willing to bear him good fruit, to provide His produce at the proper time. That is His invitation to each one here: to say "yes" to the Lord, to do whatever it is that we can do to further His kingdom, and to provide Him with the best fruit we can. That is what He is asking. He has planted us in the vineyard at the time that He knows we will be able to do the best work. The temptations are all going to be there to abandon what we know we are supposed to do, and the temptations are abundant. But the grace is also there in abundance, and the mercy of God is there in abundance. He is giving to us absolutely everything that is necessary to be productive and to bear for Him the best fruit that has been produced in 2,000 years. You have been chosen by God, not only as a choice vine, but as a chosen tenant to tend the vine and to produce good fruit and to give that to Our Lord at the proper time.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.