27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 79:9,12-16,19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
Picture: cc Bitman
Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself visiting a new place–maybe a friend’s home, or a retreat house like this–and trying to switch on an electrical appliance, only to find that it does not work? When this happens, one of the first things you might do is to check to see if the device is plugged into the power socket. But, as sometimes happens, when you do this, you may find that the power cord is entangled with a whole host of other cables, such that there’s no easy way to identify which one belongs to the device you wish to use. So you set out to disentangle the cables. To find out which cable belongs to which machine. Not an easy task. What’s worse, sometimes, even after you have done this, you may still not be able to get the appliance to work. Perhaps the power cable is too short to reach the socket, and you can’t find an extension cord. Or perhaps the appliance itself is faulty. If this is the case, there is usually not much more you can do except to get help. Unless you’re an expert, you don’t want to try to fix the appliance. It doesn’t belong to you. You don’t want to risk making the thing worse than it already is. It may, of course, feel very frustrating, especially after you’ve expended so much energy in disentangling the cables. But, even so, the wise thing to do is to wait. To defer to a higher power.
A dysfunction, a disentangling, and a deference to a higher power. These are also among the key elements in our Mass readings today. Both in our first reading and the gospel we find something that is malfunctioning. This is not just any electrical appliance, but a whole nation. Something is wrong with the people of Israel. It is somehow not performing the function for which it was created. And to find out why this is so, some troubleshooting is required. In the process, it’s as though a tangled mass of power cables is unravelled.
Isn’t this what we find in the first reading and the gospel? In both these readings, the parable of the vineyard is used as a tool for discerning the source of the problem. It serves as a way to troubleshoot the breakdown. And it is quite striking, isn’t it, that although both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus make use of the same parable, they arrive at rather different conclusions?
In the first reading, the problem is with the vineyard, the people of Israel itself. In disentangling the complex cables feeding into Israel’s situation, what the prophet uncovers is essentially a production problem. The vineyard is meant to produce grapes for making good wine. But it bears sour grapes instead. The people of Israel is meant to produce justice and integrity in the sight of all the nations. But it bears bloodshed and a cry of distress instead. Rather than caring for the poor and those who are excluded by society, Israel is itself complicit in their continued oppression.
The dysfunction in the gospel is different. Here the problem is not one of production but management. The vineyard itself remains fertile, but it is being mismanaged. Worse than mismanagement, the vineyard is subjected to theft and corruption. The managers disregard the rights of the landowner. They plot to embezzle not only the fruits of the estate, but the whole vineyard itself. In like manner, the leaders of Israel–the chief priests and elders of the people, those who have been entrusted with the task of caring for the House of Israel– have chosen instead to make the people totally dependent upon the leaders themselves. In their zeal for keeping every minute detail of the Law, in their claim to be experts at interpreting the Law’s provisions, the priests and elders have kept the people from receiving and responding to the love of God their Creator. The cause of the dysfunction is clear. It’s a management problem.
However, even after having disentangled the cables, and identified the cause of the dysfunction, both the prophet in the first reading, and Jesus in the gospel, experience the frustration of not being able to do much about it. Despite their best efforts at admonishing their hearers, Israel and its leaders remain stubbornly resistant to change. The House of Israel continues to fall short of fulfilling its intended function. While the resistance of its leaders escalates to such an extent that Jesus will be made to experience the ultimate frustration: He will lay down his life as a ransom for many.
Even so, in our readings today, frustration and irritation, suffering and death do not have the last word. For, in both versions of the parable, we notice a deference to a higher power, which power then promises to intervene on behalf of the frustrated. In the first reading, the owner of the vineyard abandons it, allowing it to lie fallow, in the hopes that it will become fertile again. In the gospel, the wayward tenants are replaced with others that are more capable and obedient.
But that’s not all. Quite paradoxically, in spite of experiencing the frustration that comes from feeling themselves powerless to remedy a deeply dysfunctional situation, those who, like Isaiah and Jesus, are willing to defer to a higher power–those who acknowledge that God alone is the owner of the vineyard–receive a deep consolation. In the words of St. Paul in the second reading–words that the scripture scholars tell us were written from prison–there is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it... and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.
Sisters and brothers, as it was for the House of Israel, so too is it often the case with us. Whether in our families or in our workplaces, in our world or in our church, from time to time we encounter dysfunctional situations that stubbornly resist our best efforts. After disentangling all the confused strands that feed into it. After having uncovered the causes of the problem. We may come to see that the situation is really beyond us. For example, the world economy continues to favor the rich over the poor. In religious circles, there remains a stubborn attraction to the predictability of the Law, often at the expense of mercy for those who may be struggling. For our part, all we can do is to persevere in taking Paul’s advice, not just to pray, but also to fill your minds with everything that is true, and to keep doing all the things that we have learned from the Lord Jesus. In the hope that the God of peace, to whose power we defer, will remain with us, consoling and strengthening us, even in the midst of our frustration.
Sisters and brothers, are there any tangled power cables in your lives today?