Going by today’s readings, it is not a good time to be in the wine business. If your vineyard isn’t being made a ruin like in the first reading, then evil tenants are probably killing off your servants and even your son. No; being a vintner is not a safe business. You’d be better off being a farmer… or maybe a poet. So don’t go into the wine business. In fact, don’t even support it. If you’re in the custom of having a glass of wine with dinner, maybe it’s time to have grape juice instead.
Now, that would be a pretty shallow reading of today’s Scriptures, wouldn’t it? While I am one-hundred percent in favor of anyone making the decision to become a poet – in fact, my undergraduate degree is in poetry, which left my dad wondering how I ever managed to find a job – the fact is today’s readings are not at all about the dangers of the wine business.
There are different ways to read Holy Scripture and there are different senses in which a given passage can be understood. Traditionally the Catholic Church observes what are known as the Four Senses of Scripture: the Literal Sense, the Allegorical Sense, the Moral Sense, and the Anagogical Sense.
The Literal Sense refers to the actual meaning conveyed by the words and involves the actual event, person, place, or thing described by the text. The literal sense gives rise to the other three Senses, which are the Spiritual Senses.
In the Literal Sense, today’s Gospel passage presents Jesus telling a parable to the chief priests and elders. In that parable, a landowner plants a vineyard, finds tenants to manage it for him, and those tenants murder his servants and even his son.
In the Allegorical Sense, we can come to understand how those things presented in the Scriptures point to Christ and the Paschal Mystery. When you’re dealing with one of Christ’s parables, this sense of scripture is easy; this is what Christ is aiming for.
In today’s Gospel, clearly the landowner is God and the vineyard is the Holy Land. The tenants God selects are the Hebrews. The servants God sends who are killed, beat, or stoned represent the prophets who came to the people to call them to right relationship with God and who were rejected.
Finally, God sends his Son, but even the Son of God is seized by those who would usurp His inheritance and is killed.
The Moral Sense of Scripture instructs us in how Christian life should be lived. The Moral Sense of this parable is quite clear: Do not be the tenants. Note well that I do not say: do not be Jewish. There is a very old and very wrong understanding that the Jews killed Christ. The Church does not teach that and we should not believe it because the truth is we all killed Christ. We are all sinners and it is for our sins that Christ gave up His life. It is arrogant in the extreme to think that Jews alone are responsible for the death of Christ and that somehow no one else is to blame. Recall that the Jews were – and are – God’s Chosen People; without Jews who were faithful to God and who answered the call of Christ, we would not have knowledge of our Savior today. Some of the Jews embraced Christ; some of them rejected Christ, just like any other group to who has ever had the opportunity to know Christ.
So, don’t be the tenants – don’t be a person who rejects Christ and fails to see the great gift He gave us in his Crucifixion and Resurrection, because God “will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Which, as we know, is exactly what happened… and what may happen again to those who are unfaithful.
Finally, there is the Anagogical Sense of Scripture; in this sense, we see how the Literal Sense points to the Christian’s heavenly destiny and the last things. Clearly, the Anagogical Sense here calls us to friendship with God, for competition with God and trying to claim what is God’s for ourselves ends badly. Very, very badly.
The Church carefully selects her readings so that all the readings we hear proclaimed share a common element or elements for our instruction. Clearly, the first reading and the Gospel share a common theme: a fertile vineyard that is given and then taken away and given to someone else.
The Psalm today draws a clear parallel between the two in the responsorial strophe: The vineyard of the Lord is the House of Israel. In the psalm, there is a cry to God: a cry to take care of the vine and for God to restore it, and the Christian can take great joy in this for we all know that Christ is the vine and we are the branches.
But look at what happens in the second reading. We see the key to understanding what we are called to do in today’s readings. How can we make sure we are not the unworthy servants? How can we know that we are not among those tenants who would kill the Son and try to steal His inheritance?
“Finally, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”
Whatever is true. Whatever is just. Whatever is pure. Whatever is lovely. These are the things we are called to do. This is the life of the Christian. We are called to excellence. We are called to the company of God. We cannot be the grasping, greedy tenant; we must be the friend of God. We must dedicate ourselves to pruning away what is bad and cultivating that which is just, and true, and good.
We are called by God to be true citizens of the Kingdom. We respond to God’s call not through our own merit, but through the merit of Him who saves us. Let us always pray for the grace to be worthy citizens of the vineyard… to be worthy citizens of the Kingdom of God and let us strive always for the good, the true, and the beautiful… for those things worthy of praise, so that the God of peace can remain with us always.