We are nearing the end of harvest time, and it’s very fitting that, for the past several weeks, the Church’s cycle of readings has given us several parables about harvesting. We have been hearing parables about workers in a vineyard quibbling over their pay. We have heard about two sons, one who says he will work and does not, and another who refuses to work, then changes his mind. Today we have a third parable concerning a vineyard, and a fourth concerning a cornerstone. In these parables, Jesus continues to motivate the disciples to accept the faith and be part of the Kingdom of God. And this time, Jesus offers a challenge to those who reject his message.
Of course, in this first parable about the vineyard, the landowner represents God, and the tenants represent the People of Israel. But to understand this parable, we need a short history lesson, a lesson contained in the first reading we just heard from the prophet Isaiah.
Prior to Isaiah, the people of Israel had been the favored, chosen people of God. He had saved them from slavery and led them into freedom. Isaiah reminds them of God’s initiatives by way of analogy: a landowner has planted a vineyard, and done all the difficult work ahead of time for the tenant farmers. That is, he gave Israel everything they needed to create a just and virtuous society: land, a system of law, a unifying religion, and safety. But just as the vineyard in Isaiah produced wild grapes, the people of Israel went after wild desires. They fell away from their religion and went after the pagan idols. They abandoned the laws that God gave them, and they strayed from the Promised Land he cleared for them, living in foreign lands. Because they disobeyed God and broke his covenant with them, God removed his protection from them. He tore down the fence around the vineyard, in a sense, allowing the surrounding nations to come in and conquer the people, carrying them off into exile.
This brings up an interesting point. Why would God let his people, his beloved chosen ones, be vulnerable to the enemy? It’s because God has given us a truly blessed gift—the gift of free will. God knew, when he gave us this gift, that it is a double-edged sword. That is, we are able to use our free will for good or for evil. We can choose to love God or choose to walk away from him. The People of Israel, after accepting a covenant from God, slowly drifted away. Generation after generation, the practice of the faith waned, and immorality increased. Then, God, who never breaks his covenant, allowed his People to experience the consequences of their free choices. The People had decided, by their actions, that they had no need of God. And so, God, who is a gentleman, respected their choice, and left them alone. It was only too late that they realized that they needed God all along. Sound familiar?
We need not wonder when we turn on the news and hear of horrendous actions done by crazed individuals, both inside this country and abroad. We need not wonder aloud, “where was God?” when we hear of terrible atrocities committed on innocent people. We, in the West, have said to our God, “We have no need of you. Now, kindly, leave us alone.” And so He does. He allows the vineyard to be overrun. He removes his protecting hand from his people.
But God, being the great lover that he is, does not simply slink away without first going after his beloved. Just like the landowner who tries time and again to bring in the harvest from the tenants, God sends prophets and saints after his people to call them and warn them. God pursues his people right up to the point of violating our free-will, but he does not violate it. He respects our freedom. Only at the end of the parable, when the evil tenants have killed the landowner’s son, does he give the land to other tenants, who will bring in a fruitful harvest.
It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses the image of a son in the parable. Jesus, of course, is referring to himself. This is a final warning to the leaders of Israel to turn back to their God and to produce a fruitful harvest.
Brothers and sisters, this warning is not just meant for some Pharisees 2,000 years ago. It is just as relevant to us today. For we are the Church, the new People of God. The landowner has sent his son to bring in the harvest. That is, God has sent Jesus into the world to establish and nourish his Church. This Church bears fruit when she brings in new members and makes new disciples. When Jesus comes again,
- Will he find tenants who fail to work and reap useless wild grapes, or will he find tenants who work the land and reap a plentiful harvest?
- Will he find nominal Christians who abandon the faith, who sow in the flesh and reap corruption, or will he find Christians who sow in obedience to the spirit and reap the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, chastity, modesty and generosity?
We must work the vineyard. We work it when we practice our faith, obey the teachings of the Church, and speak the difficult truth to our family members who have fallen away. It is hard work, but when done in love, it actually does bear fruit. I know this because it’s not up to us alone. God works thru us in imperceptible ways. I have seen it time and time again. A kind word to a lonely widow, a challenging word to the slothful, a hand up to the addict who has hit rock-bottom. When we go to work for the Kingdom, God produces the harvest.
In the second parable today, Jesus refers to Psalm 118, “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”
Now, a cornerstone has three functions:
- It gives stability to the house, because it is large and immovable. All the other stones are placed on it and around it.
- It gives direction to the house, because in ancient times, it was often a naturally occurring stone that determined the orientation of the house.
- It gives focus to the house, because again, it is the largest stone, and thus it is impossible to ignore.
And so, Jesus asks if the disciples have ever read this passage about the cornerstone. Of course they had, but they didn’t understand that it was referring to Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of that psalm, an unexpected prophet from a backwoods town, he didn’t fit the description of who they wanted their Messiah to be. He said things they didn’t want to hear. He challenged them. He made people uncomfortable by speaking the truth to them, yet not without love. Some, like the tax-collectors and prostitutes, responded in obedience and accepted Jesus. Yet the rich and the powerful rejected him.
It’s a grim warning to us as individuals and to us as a nation. Will we reject the cornerstone, Jesus Christ, or will we place him as the foundation of our society? Will we continue to marginalize him by electing leaders with no respect for Christian morality? Will we seek security in money and power? Will we place our jobs ahead of him, our sports ahead of him, our education ahead of him, our pleasure ahead of him?
If we want to keep Jesus as the cornerstone of our society, we must start on the local level. More local than this county. More local than this town. More local than even the home. We must each start with ourselves. We’ve got to make Jesus the cornerstone of our hearts.
- When Jesus is our cornerstone, we gain stability, direction, and focus.
- When the family has Jesus as the cornerstone, the home has stability, direction, and focus.
- When the homes have Jesus as the cornerstone, then the town will have stability, direction, and focus.
- And when our towns have Jesus, then the nation will have stability, direction, and focus.
It all starts with the stone rejected by the builders, Jesus Christ. Today, make him the cornerstone of your life. And get ready for another kind of harvest.