In the New Testament the most quoted book of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Book of
Psalms. Even if we were to casually read through the psalms we would notice rather quickly that some phrases are very familiar to us: things that Paul said, things that Jesus said, things that Peter and James said.
Prior to the printing press in 1450, the Bible was too big for one person to
hold and too expensive for people to own. Most individuals who owned books of
the Bible literally owned a book or two. And most Bibles were held in
libraries, almost always in a church library. So we are spoiled a bit by the easy access we have to the scriptures, in fact, our own Holy Redeemer library owns at least one copy of every translation known!
But we are also blessed by another important addition that was made to the
scriptures in the 12th and 13th centuries. Prior to that, there were no chapter
and verse notations. If you wanted to refer to a section of the Bible, you
referred to it by the first sentence of the paragraph.
If I were to say, “Holy, holy, holy,” you’d think “Lord God Almighty.” If I
said, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” you’d have a melody playing in your
mind. That’s because we have, over the years of praying and singing, memorized the words. In the same way, the Psalms were the hymnbook and prayer book of the Israelites. Jesus grew up singing and praying the Psalms. So did those around him. His audience was so familiar with them that all he had to do was begin one and they’d know the ending. This is why we sing a psalm during every Mass, it’s not just “filler” between the readings, it’s a living reminder that Jesus himself loved these psalms, prayed them from heart, and sang them in worship with his community.
But it isn’t just the Psalms where that happens. I think that if we couldn’t own our own copy of the Bible, most of us would do the same thing that people in Jesus’ time did: we’d memorize the parts we loved most. And we’d have a better appreciation for knowing both the Old and New Testament. And it’s our lack of familiarity with the Old Testament that limits our understanding of the New Testament. Which brings us to that parable of the
Our first reading, from Isaiah chapter 5, gives us his parable of the vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.
(Sound familiar? This is clearly the same vineyard Jesus describes in his parable.)
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field
till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”
Isaiah’s vineyard story is an indictment on the people of Israel; and it would
have been hard for the audience of Jesus not to recognize the same vineyard
with the same sense of judgment. Except Jesus turns God’s judgment from the
people of Israel – the vines – to the tenants, the vine-dressers – to the
Jesus has taken a familiar story and added another overlay of meaning to
it. The vineyard no longer represents the people as it did in Isaiah; it’s the Kingdom of God. But clearly greed is the primary enemy of that Kingdom.
God has given each of us a vineyard, and sometimes more than one vineyard. For
some of us, that vineyard is our family. For others, it’s our work. For still others it’s our home or our car. There is also a sense in which our parish is a shared vineyard that has been given to all of us.
If we look carefully, we’ll see that we’re no different than the tenants in Jesus’
parable: we often resist giving back what belongs rightly to our God. We begin to think that our efforts have earned us the right to decide how the fruits of our labor are distributed and who should benefit from them.
If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that God has enough resources to
meet the needs of every ministry and every person in every country. God has
enough wealth to feed the starving people in all corners of the world, and God
has enough to supply to Holy Redeemer so that we can move forward with our own
building and facility.
God has enough, so it’s not a supply problem, it’s a distribution problem. It’s a problem that would be solved overnight if we saw our resources and possessions as God’s vineyard over which we have been made stewards. This parable is not just an indictment on the leaders of the temple in Jesus’ day. It’s a warning to us, too. Fortunately for us, Jesus doesn’t end the parable in judgement. God is willing to find new tenants for the vineyard.
We are on the verge of starting our 5th year of ministry together and much has been accomplished. Much more needs to be accomplished and many more people who are hurting and starving for the love of Christ need to be found and ministered to. Each of us is a steward, and we have a choice to make. We can insist that our resources are our own and use them as we see fit, or we can see them as God’s, and joyfully return what belongs to God so that others may share in the joy of God’s love. No one can answer for your
vineyard but you. I can only answer for my own, and reaffirm my commitment to honor God by returning to God what has been entrusted to me, that in my own small and imperfect acts of faith, God may receive the glory.