27th SUNDAY (A) OCTOBER 8, 2023

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80;
Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Have you ever seen a community garden? They pop up in poor neighborhoods. People with homes have backyard gardens, or can afford to buy what they want. But poor people struggle to meet even the basic needs of their families. I have preached in a Harlem parish four times. Harlem is a very dense neighborhood and has large numbers of the poor. I have seen several lots there lush with tomatoes, cabbage, squash, cucumbers, etc. They are vegetable co-ops – community gardens. Neighbors get together and clear the land of rubble and debris. They plant vegetables and flowers and take responsibility for tending the garden. Everyone gets to share whatever they agreed to plant.

Community garden: if every member is consistent and committed in their efforts, they all benefit and enjoy a shared harvest. If some do not perform their duties regularly and conscientiously, the crops fail and it becomes just another weed-choked lot in the city. The Scriptures use a similar image to communicate God’s truth to biblical people like us. The "co-op" most mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is a vineyard.

Today our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, speaks of God planting, caring for and protecting a vineyard. The vineyard is a symbol for the people of Israel and God’s loving care for them. The people – the vineyard – come to know God as: the creator of all; the one who delivers them from slavery; their guide and protector in the desert during times of physical and spiritual testing.

People also come to know God as a giver of a portion of this earth which they call their own–"the Promise Land." Israel, as the partner, is to cooperate with God’s graces and produce the fruits of faithfulness, justice, integrity and holiness. When the people don’t keep up their end of the bargain God sends them prophets, like Isaiah, to remind them of what God has done; and what they should do in response to their gracious and loving God.

Our first reading will give us some insight and help us enter today’s gospel parable. Isaiah’s dramatic and poetic instincts shine in his parable of the vineyard. It seems to be harvest time and the prophet is singing about his friend’s well-cared for vineyard. Notice the loving details which describe the care his friend shows towards his vineyard. Imagine the friend’s anticipation: one day he will harvest the grapes from his vineyard and enjoy the fruit of his hard labors… a fine wine. But the song ends in frustration when the owner finds wild grapes, good for nothing but sour wine. The owner’s dream of festive gatherings with family and friends and the delight of those at table, as they sipp the choice wines from his vineyard, is shattered

The scene shifts to a court room as the friend presents his case against his vineyard with the lament, "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?" Then the prophet brings his parable home to his hearers. The owner of the vineyard is God and the vineyard Israel. The chosen people are a disappointment to God, for the Lord’s vineyard has produced only bloodshed and injustice and the cry of the poor and oppressed rise up to God.

The gospel picks up the familiar Old Testament theme – the vineyard. It is an invitation to us to think about the quality of our efforts in the vineyard. Initially Jesus is challenging the religious leaders of his day for their failures as caretakers of the vineyard, God’s people. The servants in the story were given much. The owner provided all that was needed for a successful harvest: a protective hedge, a wine press, a tower for surveillance/security... And asked for a share in the Vineyard. But the servants overreached in their desire to have it all. In their greed and laziness the servants sought to make a claim on what was not theirs.

Couldn’t the story be applied now to our care of the planet? All creation is a gift from God, a gift God loves and has made beautiful for us. We are the privileged tenants. It’s not ours, we don’t own the planet. It has been entrusted to us and we are privileged to use it and are responsible to take care of it. But our care of the planet has faltered. Resources are polluted, wasted and overused. For example, in Texas over 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process to pump oil out of the ground, polluting underground streams. Locals have had to buy bottled water. As a result, "The Sunday Dallas Morning News" attributes earthquake increases to fracking.

I lived in West Virginia where they use strip mining to extract the coal right below the surface. It is a process that ruins the topsoil and the rivers at the foot of the hills where the stripped soil is dumped, causing the streams and rivers to become alkaline, killing fish and harming animals that drink from it. The coal companies are supposed to restore the land after they are finished taking the coal, but it is just a cosmetic repair job. Locals are left with a depleted land and a ruined forest, hills and streams. I once saw a slag pile (slag is what is left behind when coal is extracted from mines.) There was smoke coming out of the ground from underground fires. Leftover bits of coal in the slag was burning. I was told by a miner that the slag would burn for 100 years. Was he exaggerating?

Polluted resources; global warming; shrinking rainforests; ice caps melting, over consumption... all from lack of stewardship. So few enjoy so much while so many hunger for even basic and nutritional needs. The Earth is our "community garden." We are partners with God, we are the tenants in the vineyard. The gift has been given and it is our responsibility to care for it. In the ordinary daily use of resources what role will we play in preserving, or depleting, the gifts God has given and called us to responsible stewardship?

We pray at this Mass to be better caretakers of all God’s gifts. Here our faith is fed. Here our stewardship is challenged.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: