On the Vineyard and Wicked Tenants

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2019.

It is necessary to have in mind the context in Saint Luke’s gospel in which our loving Lord Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem upon colt, the road upon which He entered covered with garments in honor of Him, and the whole multitude of the disciples rejoicing and praising God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And yet approach the city Jesus wept over its condition—not its physical condition but its spiritual condition: a city made by God for His glory and worship, in a Temple made by God for that same reason.

This is why he then precedes to cleanse the temple, driving out the money-changers with the teaching, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” as it was when Mary His mother and Joseph is guardian found Him at age twelve sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions—if Jesus asks questions then we are to, as well—and all who Him were amazed at His understanding and His answer. And within the religiously collapsing Temple, Jesus taught and yet His authority was questioned by the chief priests and scribes—those, we must remember, were then only nominally religious and had sold out to Roman authority because—well, we know what money and power can do to people. Despite the jostling, Jesus fends off His foes, and then taught the parable.

“A man,” Jesus said, “planted a vineyard.” Although parables usually are to be freely interpreted and lived-with often with multiple meanings within the single parable, in this case we must start with the primary interpretation: that this man symbolizes God and the vineyard symbolizes Israel. These are strong and consistent symbols throughout the Old Testament: in Isaiah, to take but one instance, we hear: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” And we hear similarly in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and the Song of Songs. In this long tradition, God creates a vineyard that He loves. He is sometimes angry at it, but in the end God always restores it. God’s mission with His people is always just that: restoring that, and who, He has made, that we attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Him, to the measure of the stature of fullness of Him.

Who then are the tenants? The word “tenants” suggests those who have a commercial interest in the property, not a personal or religious one. The tenants are described as quite distinct from “servant,” as well as the “beloved son,” and that is very important. Our Lord most immediately wanted to direct His parable against not Israel but those who would destroy it. Israel—God’s vineyard, is fruitful, but hostile tenants are preventing the harvest. And so Jesus says, the man “will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” We have, then, a critique of the corruption of the Temple by Rome and its Jewish collaborators—the chief priests, scribes, and their associates.

This is emphasized by Our Lord’s quoting of Psalm 118: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” This was a Psalm that was sung—all of the Psalms were originally sung, and remain best experienced through singing and chanting—at Passover as a way of rejoicing that Israel, the enslaved people, had become the cornerstone of a nation in covenant with God. Jesus fully stands in solidarity not with political Israel of His day, but religious Israel of His day. As He said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

This is what God is doing when He is doing a “new thing.” God’s actions always have a dual characteristic—creating and restoring. Saint Paul said, “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come,” and yet in becoming a new creation, our personality remains, our uniqueness remains. Paul’s passion, and Mary Magdalene’s passion, were not extinguished when they were called and remade by Jesus, but rather rightly ordered to God. God is always remaking us more into who He created us to be, and Why He created us in the first place, and keeps in alive now.

And yet this dual character of God’s action takes on a poignancy when we think of the suffering that God allows to happen to Paul—who suffered the loss of all things, and let us hear in his words at somewhere a profound existential dread and grieving—what God allowed to happen to many of the apostolic men and women of the early Church—martyred for their love of Jesus—and what God allowed to happened to His Son, Jesus our Lord and Savior. Jesus knows that in the parable, He is the beloved Son, He is the heir—that He will be cast out of the vineyard and killed. Let us, who are soon to enter again into Holy Week and the mysteries of the Sacred Triduum, enter know into the mind of Jesus, telling a parable in which the central character is killed, and knowing it is about Him. And let us hear the final verse of our Psalm in just this way: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed”—our Lord in His passion—“will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves”—our Good Shepherd Jesus, carrying us remade on His shoulders with joy.

Homily: “On the Lamb of God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time) 2017, Year A.

Whereas last Sunday we heard described the Baptism of Jesus in something of a first-person account, Jesus’s own experience of the moment, handed down to Saint Matthew, today the account is from the perspective of John the Baptist, which reached Saint John the Evangelist.

Now, despite that we are told by Saint John that this is the day after the Baptism in the River Jordan, if we consider this account from the Gospel of John while flipping back and forth from accounts of given to the Church by the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we can suspect the plausible and even likely scenario that John the Baptist is here seeing Jesus coming toward him after Jesus had returned from the forty days in the wilderness and the temptations concerning the manner of His messiahship. A biblical “day” is often longer than a 24-hour period. In the wilderness, recall that Jesus rejected being the king of satanic magic, rejected being a king outside the natural order of creation, and he rejects being a king of earthly politics. Having battled the Devil in the wilderness—which is a biblical symbol involving contemplative, silent prayer—having battled the Devil in the wilderness, and forever vanquished the forces of evil, he returns to the community, and John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him.

What light must have shined from Him—the Light of all light! Jesus has taken hold of the life of perfect love. Jesus, always the divine Son, from His birth and maturing as a wee baby, then a toddler, then a big boy, then a teenager going through puberty, then young adult, and finally a fully mature man, increased in wisdom and increased in stature—Jesus through it all was the perfect pray-er. He always held His Father in perfect adoration. Jesus’ consciousness was always heightened and expanded, and because of that, His conscience always attuned to reality, and because of that, His compassion always sensitive to those around Him. He knew who He was—He is the Son of the Most High; He is to sit on the throne of David, He is to reign over the house of Jacob for ever, of His kingdom there will be no end—indeed, He is the Son of God.

And He knew that as the Son of God, He was to live His whole life for us, and for our salvation. And in living His whole life for us, He knew that He is to suffer. He was to suffer because He has taken on our sins, He shares our human nature, He would live and die as one of us. He lived His life on earth at all times bearing His cross, knowing somehow that it is His Father’s will that His Son be nailed to it.

John the Baptist, blessed by being born into a family of devout Jews and blessed still more by the presence of Jesus when both we still in the womb, not perfectly but intuitively understands who Jesus is, for John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We hear these words at the moment of eucharistic communion. Jesus, actually and really Him, offers Himself to us in love. The term “lamb” for the hearers of John the Baptist was rich in symbolic meaning. Preeminent among the meanings is that of sacrificial victim—the Passover lamb as well as the lamb of daily morning and evening sacrifice, and weekly Sabbath service. Lamb refers to oblation—an offering to God—for the atonement of sins; a lamb was presented to the Most High has a peace offering and a sin offering. A lamb is offered to make pure that which is impure. Furthermore, “lamb” means innocence, a lamb needs care and nurturing, a lamb is a sign of gentle and serene peace as well as prosperity.

This is why the Church appointed last Sunday the 42nd chapter of Isaiah, and today the 49th. These are two of the four “servant songs” that reflect the prophesy of the “suffering servant.” What it means for Jesus to be the Lamb is described by Isaiah: bringing justice to the nations, not a political but a spiritual king, the Light of light that opens the eyes of the blind and saves those in darkness, a salvation that reaches to the end of the earth. For He takes away the sin of the world—He gives us a permanent way out of our self-centeredness, out of our tendency to put ourselves and even those we love before God, before our love for Him. When the resurrected Jesus walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, undoubtedly among the Scriptures he explained to them were the four suffering servant songs of Isaiah, and how these concerned and described Him.

Brother and sisters, God releases us from the bondage of our sin as we cooperate with His grace, the grace that always goes before us. Yet in the vast majority of cases, this is a slow and even laborious journey. Indeed the true nature of Jesus Christ is revealed little by little. But let us in our imperfect and incremental ways recognize indeed that the Lamb of God walks among us. We sang about the Lamb of God during the Gloria, asking him to have mercy on us and receive our prayer. We will sing again of the Lamb of God during the Communion Rite, asking again for Him to have mercy on us, and also asking Him to grant us peace, a peace which we recognize in those around us, a peace that shows us what forgiveness really means. And then Behold the Lamb of God immediately before Communion itself. We receive the sacrificial offering, and we continue to become that which we behold—that we too may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. Amen.