Reflection for Sunday – October 8, 2023
Ordinary Time 27 A
One straightforward way of reading today’s Gospel is as an indictment of the chief priests and scribes of Jesus’ time. We can identify them with the tenant farmers who rejected the messengers and killed the king’s son.
The story is a variation on an equally depressing passage in Isaiah, where God’s careful preparation of the vineyard comes to naught.
If we read these passages concentrating exclusively on the outcome, we would only experience failure. Dreams shattered, great loves destroyed, inedible wild grapes with long runners that wrap around every living thing they touch and choke the life out of the plants where they cling.
Reading the texts this way give us nothing helpful to turn over in our minds and weave into our life patterns this week. Let’s concentrate instead on the vineyard owner. In both passages, the vineyard owner did his very best, gave fully to produce the best possible vineyard.
In Isaiah, the vineyard owner used the finest materials to build up his vineyard, but it did not yield good fruit. In Jesus’ parable, the vineyard produced a true and abundant harvest, which only brought out the greed in the tenants. With a call for justice and an end to hostility, the owner sent increasingly important messengers to talk with the tenants and finally, the most important, His own son.
You and I can remember when we have given something the full measure of our devotion and it failed. We can point to failed relationships, the song that ended without applause, our work rejected, our adult children devoid of the values we treasure. When our best efforts fail, we are sorely tempted to stop sending messengers and never the one closest to us.
And yet, we are most like God when we do just that – give our best over and over again.
During times when failure threatens to crush us, we would do well to remember Paul’s words in today’s second reading: “Let God’s own peace through Christ His Son stand guard over our hearts and minds.”
Let me tell you one woman’s story as a profound witness to today’s lessons. I’ll call this woman Nora. Nora had been a member of my congregation. We lived together for seven companionable years before she left the congregation. Shortly afterwards, Nora married. Within a year, two tragedies struck. Her beloved older brother committed suicide and she was found to have uterine cancer. Fortunately, surgery removed the cancer completely. Then, one day, Nora’s husband came home and told her that he didn’t love her anymore. Could she be gone by Friday? Next, her father died. Not long after that, I got a phone call from Nora, whom I hadn’t seen since she left our community. She was at Strong. “I want you to come over and help me die.”
Nora had acute leukemia.
I would sometimes come into her hospital room and find the efforts at living left her too weak to talk. At other times she would be teaching a group of interns and seasoned doctors about what happens in the human heart, mind and body as illness ravages it.
Over these last months, Nora worked through a lot. One day, shortly before she died, Nora told me she had come to feel better about herself than she had at any time in her life. She planned her funeral liturgy to reflect all she had come to understand about herself before God. Nora died at 42.
Was hers a wasted life? A failed life? Was her vineyard fruitful or was it choked by invasive vines? Had she heeded the messengers God sent or not?
At the end of her funeral, a cantor sang a song from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” which ends with this verse:
In the evening of my life, I shall look to the sunset,
At a moment in my life when the night is due.
And the questions I shall ask only you can answer.
Was I brave and strong and true?
Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?
Like Nora, we cannot lose hope in the face of suffering, or when our vineyard is attacked. Through the darkest of times, personally or in world crises, we can confidently pray today’s Psalm:
Lord of Hosts, take care of your vine!
Protect what your right hand has planted!
Let your face shine on us and we shall be safe!