Mass readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Ezekiel 18.28-28 Psalm 25.4-9 Philippians 2.1-11 Matthew 21.28-32
Listening to the parable Jesus tells us today, we grasp an immediate message: it’s not enough to declare one’s obedience to God, one must do the work. If one refuses the obligation from the outset, publicly rebels, but upon reflection realizes one’s error, the work can still be done. In this parable we don’t have a reconciliation between the father and the openly disobedient son; but from the other parables of Jesus, we can expect this is how the story ends: the repentant son who eventually does the work will be welcomed by the father; the truly disobedient son who never went to the vineyard will get his just desserts.
However, in the premise of the parable is a more fundamental issue of authority and respect. When we come to consider what is going on in our world today, with regard to those who claim authority, including the Church, and how suspicion and disrespect are growing toward those who claim authority over us, how among authorities there is any increasing rivalry for the attention, and the obedience of people, we have an immediate current concern that our Lord addresses.
I say this is about respect, because I find this story strange to begin with as it puts to Jesus’ listeners the idea of a household so dysfunctional that its adult children are utterly disrespectful to their father: one to his face, and the other in more cowardly fashion, by not showing up at the vineyard to do the work.
Think about the culture of those times, father as an institution was at heart of that world. It was a patriarchal network: the king or emperor as the father of the nation, his vassals down to the humble farmer and tradesman formed households great and small that related to each other through the elder men of families, clans and tribes. Their ability to cooperate and so, to provide those things expected of them depended on this: the protection and prosperity of the nation by the king, the provision of the necessities of life to the family by the husband and father. Remember, there was no welfare system, no public healthcare. The social safety net was the family networked by kinship to other families, and each was represented by the male head of the family.
Respect for the authority of the father was the lynchpin of the system. It didn’t work without it; even if the respect was strictly formal and did not come from love. One didn’t go undermining that without legitimate cause; one didn’t defy it without good reason.
So, if you and I had been there to hear Jesus’ preaching, we’d leave thinking about whether or not it was believable. And, of course, we’d begin to think about our attitude toward God; had we come to resentment and rebellion against God? Because obviously this parable is about us and our relationship with God. And so, this should be part of our reflection today.
Israelites and Jews more generally of the first century were horribly divided, and many seethed with resentment toward the institutions of their community; and many were in spiritual rebellion too. One could argue they had cause: look at the state of God’s people, the state of the world. God has abandoned us; he has not been a good father! Why should I toil for him? I will never inherit this vineyard—so, I will look to myself, even as a spiritual leader, I will put myself first.
Now, that’s a superficial analysis. The Hebrew scriptures
explain how Israel turned its back on God. How the kings went from being somewhat faithful, to simply abandoning a sincere faith and substituting for it a cynical observance of the law in terms of its rituals and holidays; and how the people happily went along with it. They went along because it was easier; they went along because the foreign gods offered all kinds of sensuous delights, they gave licence to debauchery, their priestesses and priests claiming that orgiastic indulgence was tribute to the deities who were the ones who actually gave Israel plentiful harvests and wealth and not the god of Sinai. They forgot that the whole point of Israel was not to become rich and powerful, but rather to become holy, and so, a beacon of hope for the world.
And when it all eventually, inevitably came to ruin, who was to blame? Was it the fathers in the thousands and thousands of homes who failed to teach the faith, keep its customs, be the spiritual guardian of their respective families? Was it the king and the high priest whose earthly authority had gone to their heads, such that they mistook personal desires and ambitions for the will of God? Was it them altogether, working in perverse harmony to pull apart the fabric of the nation from top to bottom? Or was it God the Father’s fault?
Today one has to wonder why there has been this turn from God in that formal sense of religious practice? Lots of people still believe in God, there are really very few true atheists. The poor mass attendance by nominal Catholics, who send their kids to Catholic schools, even support Catholic charities, but will not worship, will not be part of the community that actually catechises and spiritually forms believers, begs questions as to what is going on?
When I have that rare opportunity with a lapsed Catholic come to speak to me his or her mind, I can’t say as I get a whole lot of insight, just a list of the usual reasons we know too well: the abuse scandals, corrupt leadership, the often-confused and divisive leadership of the bishops, and so on. A lot of people just believe the Church is corrupt. And on the basis of what is known of the Church’s failings throughout history, and what is suspected of it, and what it is accused of, this becomes enough to say I will not come, I will not receive the sacraments, I will not pray in the assembly, I will not worship because this is the one way I can get back at the God who has failed us. I will not share the gospel in any meaningful way apart from trying to be a good person as far as I know how; because of the scandal of the Church, I will not utter the name of Christ to another because I’m ashamed, or I’m disappointed, or because I no longer believe in the efficacy of faith. So, I will not work in the vineyard.
Of course, Jesus was dealing with this two thousand years ago. And it was a matter of confusing the father with his disobedient sons. Remember, Jesus told us, “Call no one Father, but your father in heaven.”
The Church, with all its bishops and priests, with all its lay ministers and officials, these are not our heavenly father; you don’t owe the priests worship, the bishops prayer. Sometimes we clergy are the disobedient children who agreed to go to the vineyard but did not go, or it’s the case that some of us went, but we’ve taken an overlong break from the real work. Others of us showed up at the wrong place and have been toiling away on someone else’s farm oblivious to the fact and yet convinced we’re on the job. And, indeed, there are among us those who claim we’re going to the vineyard, or say we’ve been, but have yet to do any of the work we’ve been asked to do, preferring our own projects and preoccupations.
None of that lets any of us out of the obligation to serve our heavenly Father with humility and in obedience. And the work we’re called to is not the aggrandizement of ourselves or of our clergy. While I as pastor may have ambitions for the time I am here, I must discern very carefully what I might do so as not to simply impose on you my pet projects to the neglect of the worship and formation that is supposed to be going on among us.
The vineyard is a planting of holiness, the vine of Christ upon which our souls are grafted is to bear fruit to be gathered. It’s no community garden, each of us with our own little plot, but a common labour that forms us both singly and together in Christ. It’s not about obedience itself, but about obeying the call to holiness and righteousness as we know it from the Word of God, from the teachings of the Apostles, from our contemplation and reception of the Sacraments. Those who do this work, however late started, will enter the kingdom of God.
We continue to pray for the Synod this week in its potential to begin the Church’s long tradition of faithful reform and renewal so as to head off a further experience of its sad history of schism; that for all those attending with their own agendas and plans, that the Holy Spirit will call them to the work of the vineyard where all Christ’s faithful toil, sweating in the heat but joyful in fellowship as sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven.