From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

“God is Looking for Gardeners Not Guards”

Ezekiel 18: 25-28    Philippians 2: 1-11    Matthew 21: 28-32

Gospel Summary

Today’s Gospel Jesus tells the story about the two sons and working in the vineyard after the chief priests and elders had asked him on what authority he taught.. In this parable, the vineyard stands for God’s people and the two sons represent those who are called to care for them.

The first son represents the established Judaism, which was in place when Jesus came. As often happens in such cases, the religious leaders of that time paid lip-service to the God of mystery but, when Jesus came in a way they had not expected, they were unable to accept the mysterious ways of God,

The second son stands for the “outsiders;’ including Gentiles, who had been accustomed to saying “No” to God but, having been chastened by their experience of sinfulness, responded positively to the challenge of Jesus. They were joined by the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who, though despised by the religious types of that time, were more humble and therefore more open to the message of Jesus. The point is that pride and smugness are far greater obstacles to true conversion than a sinful past ripe for repentance.

Life Implications

Most mainstream religions have developed elaborate rituals and clear moral guidelines to help their members to establish and maintain a good and fruitful relationship with God. This is a great guide and moral help, since it’s so easy to lose one’s balance in matters of religion.

All this becomes more a problem than a help, however, when one’s relationship with God is reduced primarily to observing rituals and keeping rules. This kind of behavior is readily encouraged by society. It is certainly much preferred to unruly and destructive actions. But ritualistic religious behavior can remain very superficial, focusing only on external observance and appearances rather than on deep and personal conversion. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day certainly appeared more religious than the tax collectors and prostitutes. But their strict observance hid a deep and fatal flaw. It was self-righteous, expressed most often inrash judgment of others.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting that we despise ritual and disregard moral codes. But he wants us to not only say the right things (like the first son), but also to act in a way that benefits others (like the second son). This will happen only when we’re truly converted from selfish ways and become exemplary tolerant, compassionate and forgiving.

Most people are repelled by a religious observance that has no depth and is in fact accompanied by questionable behavior. But if they look more closely, they will see that there are also observant believers whose behavior is perfectly in harmony with their faith.

It’s easy to be scandalized if that is what you want. It is easy to be scandalized if you want to have an excuse for not being a truly moral person. The ideal is to faithfully observe rituals and rules and at the same time act like the kind of person called by those rules to moral observance. (Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.)

But there is another perspective from which this Gospel passage may be interpreted. The chief priests own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down through generations.  Jesus’ questioning of them comes as a challenge to that traditionally held authority. They are being challenged to confront the fact that they have refused to recognize messages and people sent by God in other ways than through their interpretations.

In the parable of the Two Sons, those leaders are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one. The two groups represent the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth.

What does this have to do with us? We are living in the same dialogue; we are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority. This is not a question of ecclesiastical authority or church structures for that matter, but a question where we can best hear and be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us. We may miss the challenge of this passage if we simply interpret it as a call to go out into the vineyard, to find the “outsiders” of our day – which we should rightly do — and fail to see its challenge to us as individuals in our communities of faith.

Shane Hipps in his excellent book, “Selling Water by the River”, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in this passage: “Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They’ve mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This kingdom is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity”

Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son, who said “Yes”, but did not go. After all these years we may be the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us. All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causing us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.

But there is also the possibility that we, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the church, may wind up like the first son; resisting the voice of God and refusing to follow, but eventually working as master gardeners in an ever-growing garden.

Are we in need of fresh eyes and changed hearts in order to be faithful to the God revealed to us in Jesus? Should it be a constant challenge for us to follow a person who regularly confronted calcified authorities in order to bring about new birth? Given the age of Christianity and its identification with so much of society in the western world, are we now in the position of the chief priests and elders? Have we become guards of an ancient treasure or are we gardeners growing both heirloom plants and sturdy hybrids, and adapting as the garden grows? (Mark Suriano)

 

 

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