For the folks at Gesu in Miami …
I don’t know that we often reflect on how much we depend on “knowing the whole story” or “seeing the big picture” to understand the deeper significance of events. Most things that we view only as a snapshot and without context, we tend to understand only superficially. An example: there’s a famous picture of Pope John Paul II visiting a young Turkish man in his room. Someone who knows nothing of John Paul and his life will probably look at the snapshot get a superficial understanding of the encounter: it seems friendly, personal, and vaguely good. The one who knows that the young Turk is the same man who tried to assassinate John Paul II a year earlier, on the other hand, sees deeper significance. The picture passes from capturing something vaguely good to capturing Pope John Paul’s moral heroism. But we can see this added dimension of meaning only when we know the “whole story.”
In today’s “Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen,” Jesus seems to be trying to give us this “whole story,” the “big picture” that will help us to understand the deeper significance of our religious observance. However, in this case he uses the parable not to reveal the deeper goodness of our actions, but to reveal the deeper badness of our failure to “produce fruits at the proper time.”
As Jesus frames the “big picture,” our spiritual barrenness, our inability to produce the fruits of the Kingdom, doesn’t just appear unreasonable, or even just contrary to our best interests (though this is true); it also appears as the blackest ingratitude, a story of love betrayed.
In today’s parable, Jesus reminds that we owe his Father quite simply everything. We are like a vineyard in which the Lord has patiently labored, giving of himself so that we can bear the fruits of the Kingdom. And when we refuse to produce the fruits, the Lord refuses to give up–either on us or on the standard of justice. Instead, he sends messenger after messenger to remind us of our responsibility. Finally, he sends his own Son to collect, imagining that the tenants would be moved to repentance by so great a gesture of goodwill. We know how the story ends …
Jesus here implies the question that Isaiah puts in God’s mouth: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?” Jesus uncovers a little corner of God’s passion, his deep grief, and–yes–even his anger when this love is rejected.
Jesus recalls the “big picture” in his preaching because he knows that–left to our own devices–we all tend to drift into a “snapshot” view of our spiritual life and our religious obligations. And from that “snapshot” perspective, we tend to see failure in our religious discipline pretty benignly. If each week we spend five times as much time watching college football as we do praying, we might view this as “vaguely bad.” But it probably doesn’t cause too much alarm. If we make it to Mass two weekends out of four each month, we may not be swelling with pride, but we’re pretty sure that God understands that we’re busy. “Besides, we’re doing better than most …”
But when we put ourselves back into the “big picture” that Jesus paints, religious discipline starts to look a lot more urgent. When we recall that the Father has welcomed us out of nothingness in Creation, that we have abused His generosity in sin, that He sent his Son so close to us that we could lay hands on him and kill him, and that he sent His Spirit to “lead us into all truth,” so that we might at last be able to worship him in Spirit and in truth; when, finally, we recall that all He asks in return are “fruits at the proper time;” then refusing Him the first-fruits of our life begins to appear criminally ungrateful.
Happily, the Eucharist, when properly understood, can help awaken us to the urgency of gratitude. The very word “Eucharist,” after all, means gratitude. And over the course of the Mass we retrace the “whole story” of salvation. In the offering of the bread and wine we profess God “maker of heaven and earth.” In the canon we review God’s slow cultivation of the human heart, by which he gradually prepared us to offer him fitting worship. We hear how God raised up “[his] servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by [his] priest Melchizedek.” And finally, at the consecration, we acknowledge that we can please the Father only through the Son—through Christ the Lord, the true priest of every Mass.
The Father sent his only Son into the vineyard to strengthen us to offer “fruits at the proper time.” The proper time is today.