Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Lord Will Never Abandon His Vineyard

Biblical Reflection for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

TORONTO, SEPT. 27, 2011 ( We are back in the vineyard again this week, immersed in another of Matthew's complex Gospel parables. Jesus told these parables in answer to the question: "What is the kingdom of God like?" His parables are short narratives that combine realistic details from first-century Palestinian life in little villages with details that are foreign to the ways that things happen in daily life.

Today's Gospel parable is often called the parable of the wicked tenants. Like last week's parable of the two sons and next week's parable of the royal wedding feast (33-46), today's story is clearly one of judgment at the center of Jesus' threefold response to the religious leaders who are putting his authority to the test (23-27).

In the Old Testament, "vineyard" or "vine" is often used as a metaphor for God's people. The vineyard figures frequently in Jesus' parables, setting the stage for the Kingdom of God to take root and the drama of salvation to unfold. The work in the vineyard is hard labor; patience is essential, and wages are unpredictable as we saw in a previous gospel parable (Mathew 20). The vineyard can also be a dangerous place to work. Scuffles between workers can erupt (Mark 9:33), and violence may erupt as we see in today's story (Matthew 21:33-43).

A story of violence and want

The combination of a symbol of peace and plenty of today's parable with a story of violence and want is part of what makes today's Gospel story so powerful. A closer look at it helps us understand the harsh reality of people's lives in Jesus' day.

The estate of the landlord would have housed between 50 to 70 people, mostly slaves or servants. The most trusted servants would have had significant responsibilities. The landlord's servants did not hesitate to "lord it over" those in his charge (28). In early fall, when the harvest was ready, the landlord sent out a succession of his workers to collect the rent. The landlord would not go out himself to collect the rent. On the contrary, landlords protected themselves, their families and their considerable possessions in fortified tower-residences.

The people of Jesus' day were also all too familiar with the violence the story portrays. When the landlord sent his son to collect the rent, the tenants said: "This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours." What remains very odd is that the tenants would repeatedly mistreat and even kill the one sent to them without any reprisal by the vineyard owner. In interpreting parables, the glimpse into the kingdom of God often comes to us through the strange details that are not the way things are in life around us then or now.

The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God

Today's parable is not just an allegory of hot-headed and greedy servants. Those who listened to this parable from Jesus also heard something underlying the story. Earlier they had asked Jesus about the authority he was claiming for himself. They knew he was telling the story for a reason, and this upset them. The first hearers would have recognized some familiar themes under the surface.

The vineyard imagery invites us to look at the first reading from Isaiah 5 where the vineyard symbolizes Israel. Since the vineyard has been planted by God, it represents the gift, grace and love of God. Yet the vineyard also demands the labor of the farmer that enables it to produce grapes that yield wine. Thus it symbolizes the human response: personal effort and the fruit of good deeds.

If the vineyard refers to Israel, then the tenant farmers represent Israel's religious leaders, who despite their professed loyalty to Israel's law (Torah), refuse to give God his due by acknowledging and accepting God's mighty presence in the life and mission of John the Baptist and of Jesus of Nazareth.

When successive "prophets" are sent to the "tenants" – and killed – they heard Jesus remind them of the habit leaders had in ignoring many of the warnings the prophets had previously announced. The religious leaders were being criticized for ignoring their own God-sent messengers. This of course would lead to the reaction we see in verse 12: "Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away."

Matthew has transformed this allegorical parable into a rich account of salvation history. The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God. The slaves sent to collect the produce are the prophets sent to Israel. The son whom the tenants throw out of the vineyard and kill is Jesus, who died outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.

The fact that the vineyard (41) is to be taken from the wicked tenants and given to others (43) does not refer to Israel but to the kingdom of God. It is not suggested that God will remove Israel's present leadership and provide it with more faithful leaders. Rather, "the kingdom of God" will be taken "from you" and given to a nation that will produce the fruits of the kingdom. The "you" addressed consists not only of the opponents mentioned in the context but of all who follow their leadership in rejecting John and Jesus. The nation to whom the kingdom will be transferred is the church. The reach of the parable extends to include the resurrection when Jesus directs his hearers (42) to the prophecy about the "stone that was rejected" that has become the "corner stone" (Psalm 118:22-23), while the final comment (43) reinforces the sense of the Church as inheritor of the kingdom removed from the original tenants.

Avoiding anti-Semitism

We must avoid an anti-Semitic reading of this parable. The first way is to hear it as a piece of prophetic invective addressed by a Jew to fellow Jews. We must focus attention not so much on what the passage has to say explicitly about Jewish leaders as to what it implies about Christians. The "others" to whom the vineyard is given over in verse 41 are accountable to the owner. They too are charged with the heavy responsibility of producing the fruits of the kingdom (43).

The vineyard will not be destroyed

In his homily at the mass to mark the opening of the XII Synod of Bishops on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church" on Oct. 5, 2008, Benedict XVI spoke beautifully of today's parable: "At the end, the owner of the vineyard makes a last attempt: he sends his son, convinced that they will at least listen to him. However the contrary occurs: the tenants kill him because he is the son, the heir, convinced that they can then easily come into possession of the vineyard. Therefore, faced with a jump in quality with respect to the accusation of violating social justice, which emerges from the canticle of Isaiah. Here we can clearly see how contempt for the order given by the owner is changed into scorn for him: this is not simple disobedience to a divine precept, this is the true and actual rejection of God: there appears the mystery of the Cross.

"But there is a promise in the words of Jesus: the vineyard will not be destroyed. While the landowner abandons the unfaithful tenants to their fate, he does not abandon his vineyard and he entrusts it to his faithful tenants. What this demonstrates is that, if in some areas faith weakens to the point of vanishing, there will always be other peoples ready to embrace it. This is why Jesus, as he quotes Psalm 117 (118): "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" (v. 22), assures us that his death will not represent the defeat of God. Having been killed, he will not remain in the tomb, but rather that which appears to be a total defeat will mark the start of a definitive victory. His dreadful passion and death on the cross will be followed by the glory of the Resurrection. The vineyard will therefore continue to produce grapes and will be leased by the landowner "to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him at the proper time" (Mt 21:41)."

The vineyard is the house of Israel

The parable of the wicked tenants reminds us once again that we cannot control God's continuous merciful outreach to others. It compels us to look at our lives, our attitudes and actions, in light of whether they are an embrace or rejection of Jesus' saving message. Rather than putting the focus on what the story says about Jewish leaders, we must ask: what does it say about us Christians? What is my vision of the kingdom of God? How am I producing a harvest for God's kingdom, in my private and in our communal lives? What does the parable say to me about my own troubled relationships with family, friends and colleagues? What does the story teach me about my inability to forgive others and forgive myself? Yes, the wicked tenants in today's Gospel do indeed try God's patience. But I do as well! How do I respond to God's boundless mercy and goodness that he offers me each day?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Pope's Address to German Seminarians

"Studying Is Essential: Only Thus Can We Stand Firm in These Times"

FREIBURG, Germany, SEPT. 26, 2011 ( Here is a Vatican translation of the transcription of the spontaneous address Benedict XVI said Saturday when meeting with a group of seminarians at the Charles Borromeo Seminary Chapel in Freiburg. The Vatican published the transcription and translation today.

* * *

Dear Seminarians, Dear Sisters and Brothers!

It is a great joy for me to be able to come together here with young people who are setting out to serve the Lord, young people who want to listen to his call and follow him. I would like to express particularly warm thanks for the beautiful letter that the Rector and the seminarians wrote to me. It truly touched my heart, to see how you had reflected on my letter, and developed your own questions and answers from it, and to see how seriously you are taking what I tried to say in my letter, on the basis of which you are now working out your own path.

Of course it would be wonderful if we could hold a conversation with one another, but my travel schedule, which I am bound to follow, sadly does not permit such things. So I can only try, in the light of what you have written and what I myself had written, to offer just one or two further ideas.

In considering the question -- What is the seminary for? What does this time mean? -- I am always particularly struck by the account that St. Mark gives of the birth of the apostolic community in the third chapter of his Gospel. Mark says: "And he appointed twelve". He makes something, he does something, it is a creative act; and he made them, "to be with him, and to be sent out to preach" (Mk 12:14). That is a twofold purpose, which in many respects seems contradictory. "To be with him": they are to be with him, in order to come to know him, to hear what he says, to be formed by him; they are to go with him, to accompany him on his path, surrounding him and following him. But at the same time they are to be envoys who go out, who take with them what they have learnt, who bring it to others who are also on a journey -- into the margins, into the wide open spaces, even into places far removed from him. And yet this paradox holds together: if they are truly with him, then they are also always journeying towards others, they are searching for the lost sheep; they go out, they must pass on what they have found, they must make it known, they must become envoys. And conversely, if they want to be good envoys, then they must always be with him. As St. Bonaventure once said: the angels, wherever they go, however far away, always move within the inner being of God. This is also the case here: as priests we must go out onto the many different streets, where we find people whom we should invite to his wedding feast. But we can only do this if in the process we always remain with him. And learning this: this combination of, on the one hand, going out on mission, and on the other hand being with him, remaining with him, is -- I believe -- precisely what we have to learn in the seminary. The right way of remaining with him, becoming deeply rooted in him -- being more and more with him, knowing him more and more, being more and more inseparable from him -- and at the same time going out more and more, bringing the message, passing it on, not keeping it to ourselves, but bringing the word to those who are far away and who nevertheless, as God’s creatures and as people loved by Christ, all have a longing for him in their hearts.

The seminary is therefore a time for training; also, of course, a time for discernment, for learning: does he want me for this? The mission must be tested, and this includes being in community with others and also of course speaking with your spiritual directors, in order to learn how to discern what his will is. And then learning to trust: if he truly wants this, then I may entrust myself to him. In today’s world, which is changing in such an unprecedented way and in which everything is in a constant state of flux, in which human ties are breaking down because of new encounters, it is becoming more and more difficult to believe that I will hold firm for the whole of my life. Even for my own generation, it was not exactly easy to imagine how many decades God might assign to me, and how different the world might become. Will I be able to hold firm with him, as I have promised to do? ... It is a question that demands the testing of the vocation, but then also -- the more I recognize that he does indeed want me -- it demands trust: if he wants me, then he will also hold me, he will be there in the hour of temptation, in the hour of need, and he will send people to me, he will show me the path, he will hold me. And faithfulness is possible, because he is always there, because he is yesterday, today and tomorrow, because he belongs not only to this time, but he is the future and he can support us at all times.

A time for discernment, a time for learning, a time for vocation ... and then, naturally, a time for being with him, a time for praying, for listening to him. Listening, truly learning to listen to him -- in the word of sacred Scripture, in the faith of the Church, in the liturgy of the Church -- and learning to understand the present time in his word. In exegesis we learn much about the past: what happened, what sources there are, what communities there were, and so on. This is also important. But more important still is that from the past we should learn about the present, we should learn that he is speaking these words now, and that they all carry their present within them, and that over and above the historical circumstances in which they arose, they contain a fullness which speaks to all times. And it is important to learn this present-day aspect of his word -- to learn to listen out for it -- and thus to be able to speak of it to others. Naturally, when one is preparing the homily for Sunday, it often seems ... my goodness, so remote! But if I live with the word, then I see that it is not at all remote, it is highly contemporary, it is right here, it concerns me and it concerns others. And then I also learn how to explain it. But for this, a constant inner journey with the word of God is needed.

Personally being with Christ, with the living God, is one thing: another is that we can only ever believe within the "we". I sometimes say that St. Paul wrote: "Faith comes from hearing" -- not from reading. It needs reading as well, but it comes from hearing, that is to say from the living word, addressed to me by the other, whom I can hear, addressed to me by the Church throughout the ages, from her contemporary word, spoken to me the priests, bishops and my fellow believers. Faith must include a "you" and it must include a "we". And it is very important to practice this mutual support, to learn how to accept the other as the other in his otherness, and to learn that he has to support me in my otherness, in order to become "we", so that we can also build community in the parish, calling people into the community of the word, and journeying with one another towards the living God. This requires the very particular "we" that is the seminary, and also the parish, but it also requires us always to look beyond the particular, limited "we" towards the great "we" that is the Church of all times and places: it requires that we do not make ourselves the sole criterion. When we say: "We are Church" -- well, it is true: that is what we are, we are not just anybody. But the "we" is more extensive than the group that asserts those words. The "we" is the whole community of believers, today and in all times and places. And so I always say: within the community of believers, yes, there is as it were the voice of the valid majority, but there can never be a majority against the apostles or against the saints: that would be a false majority. We are Church: let us be Church, let us be Church precisely by opening ourselves and stepping outside ourselves and being Church with others.

Well now, according to the schedule, I daresay I ought really to draw to a close now. I would like to make just one more point to you. In preparing for the priesthood, study is very much a part of the journey. This is not an academic accident that has arisen in the western Church, it is something essential. We all know that St. Peter said: "Always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). Our world today is a rationalist and thoroughly scientific world, albeit often somewhat pseudo-scientific. But this scientific spirit, this spirit of understanding, explaining, know-how, rejection of the irrational, is dominant in our time. There is a good side to this, even if it often conceals much arrogance and nonsense. The faith is not a parallel world of feelings that we can still afford to hold on to, rather it is the key that encompasses everything, gives it meaning, interprets it and also provides its inner ethical orientation: making clear that it is to be understood and lived as tending towards God and proceeding from God. Therefore it is important to be informed and to understand, to have an open mind, to learn.

Naturally in twenty years' time, some quite different philosophical theories will be fashionable from those of today: when I think what counted as the highest, most modern philosophical fashion in our day, and how totally forgotten it is now ... still, learning these things is not in vain, for there will be some enduring insights among them. And most of all, this is how we learn to judge, to think through an idea -- and to do so critically -- and to ensure that in this thinking the light of God will serve to enlighten us and will not be extinguished. Studying is essential: only thus can we stand firm in these times and proclaim within them the reason for our faith. And it is essential that we study critically -- because we know that tomorrow someone else will have something else to say -- while being alert, open and humble as we study, so that our studying is always with the Lord, before the Lord, and for him.

Yes, I could say much more, and perhaps I should ... but I thank you for your attention. In my prayers, all the seminarians of the world are present in my heart -- and not only those known to me by name, like the individuals I had the pleasure of receiving here this evening; I pray, as they make their inner journey towards the Lord, that he may bless them all, give light to them all and show them the right way, and that he may grant us to receive many good priests. Thank you very much.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Benedict XVI Recalls "Dark" Hour of Nazi Era

Vatican Spokesman Reflects on Light of Martyrs

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 25, 2011 ( Benedict XVI’s trip to his native Germany has helped to recall the lessons that must be drawn from the tragedy caused by Nazism, said the Vatican spokesman.

On the most recent edition of Vatican Television Center's weekly program "Octava Dies," Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, reflected on the Pope's four-day state visit to his homeland.

"One cannot pass through Berlin without feeling the weight of the darkest page in the history of Germany and Europe in the last century: the madness for power and murder that marked the Nazi era," the spokesman noted.

The priest said that the memory of the Nazis was "powerfully recalled" by the Holy Father on Thursday in Berlin when he referred to them as a "band of thieves."

Another important moment of the papal visit took place when he received a Jewish delegation, which included witnesses and victims of the Holocaust.

"But the light of those martyred by Nazism shines through the darkness of those times and continues to inspire the building of the future," asserted the spokesman.

Father Lombardi noted that the president of Germany, Christian Wulff, recalled three notable Catholic victims: Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg, the pastor of the Catholic Cathedral of Berlin; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant theologian; and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (1891-1942), Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun, and was later killed at Auschwitz.

"The ecumenism of the martyrs is testimony from which the ecumenical movement of today can find great depth and draw enthusiasm," added Father Lombardi. "Sacrificing one's life as a witness to God and to Jesus Christ: could there be a more solid common ground, a firmer basis for continuing the journey in the hope of a union that is not just behind us, but is also ahead of us?"

Friday, 23 September 2011

Are We Faithful and Generous Workers in His Vineyard?

Biblical Reflection for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

TORONTO, SEPT. 20, 2011 ( Immediately preceding today's Gospel story, Jesus has returned to the Temple (23a) and reclaimed this sacred space for his healing ministry (14) and the stage for teaching and challenging his opponents. The chief priests and elders of the people continue to pressure him: "By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?" (23b).

It is God himself who is the source of Jesus' authority, but stating this fact clearly would be nothing short of blasphemy on Jesus' part. Instead of directly answering his opponents, Jesus challenges them with his own question about the baptism of John. Those gathered around Jesus refuse to see God at work in John's ministry. They therefore reject Jesus in the process. This withholding of faith in God and in Jesus is exemplified in Jesus' opponents' reaction to John the Baptist.

Today's story begins by introducing us to the familiar scenario of a father who asks each of his sons to go out and work in the vineyard (Matthew 21:28-32). To a Jewish listener, familiar with Hebrew Scripture, this would already have been an important clue that there would be problems in the story! We need only recall the stories of Biblical brothers, which are almost always stories of conflict, alienation, misunderstanding, competition and tension. We need only recall Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, or Joseph and his brothers. Jesus is truly a gifted storyteller who draws his listeners in to the teaching moment. I can only imagine what the listeners were thinking as Jesus began his story: "What do you think? A man had two sons."

After giving the command, the father expects an answer from them. Not satisfied with mere words, the father desires a real commitment. Initially the first son responds negatively, but then repents, or has a complete change of heart, and goes out to work. The second son acknowledges with lip service his father's request and gives in, but does not follow through on his promise.

Blindness to God's work

The two sons represent the religious leaders and the religious outcasts who followed John's call to repentance. By the answer they give to Jesus' question (Matthew 21:31), the leaders effectively condemn themselves. As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing. In the end, the sinners in Israel, exemplified by the tax collectors and prostitutes who had carelessly ignored the demands of their religion, will take their place in the kingdom, while Jesus' adversaries will be shut out. Those who would otherwise be judged as outside the reach of salvation because of their rejection of the outward form of religion, may in fact be those who are most sensitive to their need for God's grace, and thus repent and serve the Master most meaningfully. This same strange and surprising way of God is found in today's Old Testament reading in which the ways of God and the ways of God's people stand in stark contrast (Ezekiel 18:25-28).

Insight into the kingdom

Today's parable gives us a glimpse into the radical nature of the Kingdom of God. Although this parable may contain a judgment on Jewish religious leaders, Matthew intended a much wider application of its message, even to us. In this parable each one of us can recognize his or her own personal experience. We ourselves can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. Could the parable be speaking about those who seem to be very religious and subservient at the start, but in reality may never sufficiently probe the depths of God's mercy to truly know the heart and mind of God? The parable is a lesson for those who claim to be Christian, but do not worship as Christians or live the Christian life; compared to those who come to Christ later but never claimed to be righteous.

Today many claim to know Christ but do not live the Christian life. It doesn't matter so much what you say on the outside if it is not matched by your heart on the inside, or your actions. Lip service to Christ that is merely an outward mouthing of polite promises and pious platitudes is empty by comparison with the inward acceptance of the message that prompts people to repentance and action. What God looks for is the final outcome in people's lives. God is infinitely patient with us and can certainly tolerate our initial "no" on the way to our final, definitive "yes."

Evangelization, renewal, enthusiasm

How easily our "church efforts" end up being little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement concerning what God's active grace is doing and consequently no enthusiasm for true evangelization and renewal. We say that we are going to work in the vineyard but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time complaining, moaning, ridiculing, despairing collecting the stones along the path and not rejoicing in the abundant growth that is taking place around us.

Humiliation and exultation

Today's second reading from St. Paul to the Philippians (2:1-11) contains one of the most beautiful Christological hymns of the New Testament. The short rhythmic lines fall into two parts, verses 6-8 Christ is the subject of every verb, and verses 9-11 where God is the subject. The general pattern is thus of Christ's humiliation and then exaltation.

Although Paul is in prison and no longer can visit and preach to his beloved community at Philippi, they are not without his intercession and assistance. From his prison cell, Paul begs them to make his joy complete by being of "the same mind" and "having "the same love." Rather than being caught up in the upward mobility and passing things of the world, of society, of all of our broken and sinful ways of life, we are invited to enter into the downward mobility of Jesus Christ who empties himself in order to find fullness and life.

Jesus and the Law

Consider these excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"The perfect fulfillment of the Law could be the work of none but the divine legislator, born subject to the Law in the person of the Son. In Jesus, the Law no longer appears engraved on tables of stone but 'upon the heart' of the Servant who becomes 'a covenant to the people,' because he will 'faithfully bring forth justice.' Jesus fulfills the Law to the point of taking upon himself 'the curse of the Law' incurred by those who do not 'abide by the things written in the book of the Law, and do them,' for his death took place to redeem them 'from the transgressions under the first covenant'" (No. 580).

"The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the Law. Yet Jesus could not help but offend the teachers of the Law, for he was not content to propose his interpretation alongside theirs but taught the people 'as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.' In Jesus, the same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: 'You have heard that it was said to the men of old. ... But I say to you." With this same divine authority, he disavowed certain human traditions of the Pharisees that were 'making void the word of God" (No. 581).

How do we evangelize?

1. The world around us longs for truly Good News from workers in the vineyard of the Lord -- joyful evangelizers who are not dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world. Do we approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm?

2. What prevents us from becoming real communities, true fraternities and a living body, rather than a mechanical thing or enterprise?

3. How have certain events in the world and in the Church helped us to refine and rethink our proclamation? What does the Spirit say to our Church through these events? What new forms of evangelization is the Spirit teaching us and requiring of us?

4. Are we faithful, generous, enthusiastic and hopeful workers in the vineyard of the Lord?

[The readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time are
Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32]