|27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR A|
|Written by Fr. Kevin O'Shea, C.Ss.R.|
27th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
October 2nd, 2005
Matthew 21, 33-43
The parable today is about a vineyard. In scripture, Israel was often called God's vineyard. God leased it to the Israelites. They didn't own it. They were like share-farmers on it with God. But, in the parable, the ones in the parable were a bad lot. They abused God's messengers (the prophets) and killed God's son (Jesus). As a result, they came to a sticky end (they were conquered by the Roman army in the year 70, a few years before Matthew wrote this). But the vineyard was not destroyed: it was only transferred to other tenants - obviously, the Christians. You get an impression that the Jews are no good, and the Christians are wonderful. You get an impression that the Jews were superseded by the Christians. You get an impression that the Christians were right to say nasty things, anti-Semitic things, about the Jews. Today, we could - and should - get a bit shocked by this. But at the end of the passage, Matthew hedges his bets. He says it depends on the fruits people produce. Are the Christians any better than the Jews? Don't they behave in a similar way? Are we any better than those we criticise? Are we in for the same destiny? Will the day come when ‘the vineyard' is no longer leased to the Christians? [Was it taken from the James people in Jerusalem and given to Matthew's little ones?]
There are some passages like this in the gospels. We need to realise that the early Christians in Palestine were ethnic Jews too, Jews converted to Jesus. Many of them were blood relatives of the Jews they criticised. You - usually - only say very dirty things about people who are close to you! The police call it a ‘domestic'! That might help to understand the strength of the language.... You vilify only those who are important to you...
To-day, I think and hope that we are learning to talk differently about Jews, and to be more mature about our relations with Israel. There are two main approaches. Both are good. Some Christians now are realising that ‘spiritually we are Semites' (as Pius XII once said, and many repeat now). What they have from God, they have inherited from Israel. They are grateful to God, and grateful to Israel, for the gift. Others are realising that we Christians now are not Jews - we are just different from Jews, not better, not worse. We are not Jews, and they are not Christians, and that's all right, and even better than all right. It comes from the way God loves different people differently. Let's explore this.
In the ancient world, the old Jewish world for instance, religion and politics and society were all tied up as a single packet. ‘Israel' was not a particular legal entity within a wider world - Israel was the whole wider world of those people. It embraced everything. ‘Israel' didn't fit into an already given democratic civil system, with its regulations and the possibilities for living that they protected. Israel was the whole system people lived in. It shaped society from beginning to end. It wasn't like one more organisation or denomination in a pluralistic society. It was society, and society wasn't pluralistic. It regulated everything, and did it strongly, not to say, harshly at times: it set up men as very dominant over women, it was hard on children, it had a heavy criminal code, it governed how money was to be used. Religion was actually everything. It didn't need any endorsement from any ‘civil' state apart from Israel itself. It didn't get one. There wasn't one.
When Christianity came to the western world and took root there - well after the time of the gospels - it emerged as a religion of a very different sort. [One of the troubles, when we try to compare Israel and Christianity, is that we tend to assume they are just two examples of the same social kind of ‘religion'. They aren't.] Western Christianity became a religion within a wider civil society, one that had its own politics, and economics, and social way of living, in fact, its own ‘life'. Christianity wasn't an ‘everything' thing. It was an influence on the world around it, and the world around it returned the favour and influenced Christianity. But they were not the same thing. They were not meant to be. Christianity was not the old Israel, and was not like it. This is one reason why it is hard to transfer Jewish ideas (like the Covenant with God) to a Christian, Western world.
That's why it is good to talk about Israel and Christianity as just different. They are. It is true that Jews today do try and get some of the privileges that come from the Western (mainly Christian) world: but they don't think like Western Christians, or feel they have to fit into the Western world the way Christians do. They never see themselves like a sub-division of ‘religion'. They are Jews! And God loves them for being so!
When you look back say fifty years or so, a lot of little pockets of Western Christianity actually lived a bit in the same way as Jews. They believed in Jesus all right, and went to Christian sacraments, and so on. But they set up their world as a total religious, Christian world. In some small country centres in Australia, (and in some city neighborhoods in American cities), life was like that. The village - the neighborhood - (e.g. mostly Irish Catholics) - had a Church, which was the (social) centre of everyone's life. Everything revolved around it. A catholic school, a Vincent de Paul group, catholic shopkeepers, maybe a catholic hospital in a few places, a catholic social life (and a catholic sporting club). Living like a catholic there, and living there outright, were pretty much the same thing.
Most of us realise life is not like that now. We have been educated into a much wider world. We have been brought into a professional or trade life that belongs to that wider world, even if the Church isn't there. We are teachers, or health professionals, or welfare specialists, or business people, or plumbers, etc. The Church gives us guidance to be morally good in that world, but it doesn't set up that world. We have our ‘real' identity in that world, before we are members of a ‘church'. Some Christians (and Catholics) today think this is a shame. They think the Church has lost its clout. They would like to go back to the ‘good old days' when the Church was pretty much the everything-world. They think there is a moral crisis in Western society (a ‘culture of death'), and that Western civilisation is helplessly caught up in internal contradictions (poor and rich, etc). They don't think it is capable of instilling a message of real morality any more. Nor is Western Christianity - the Western ‘Church'. It has largely abdicated and no longer lives as a ‘real' ‘religion': it just tags along with a few polite ideas from modern living. Other Christians (and Catholics) think this is not a shame at all, but a challenge. How do we find the real God within our actual contemporary world? How do we see the point of Jesus's life (and death) there? How do we learn to be truly God-and-Jesus people right there? A lot of these people are working hard on the answers. Not just in their heads, but in the way they live. The answers don't include going back to the ‘we are all there is' world.
A lot of these thoughts apply to Islam as well as Israel. Islam too comes historically from the ancient world, and has inherited the teaching of ‘the prophet' and a strong sense of scripture (the Koran) and law (Sha'aria). It sees itself as a ‘total' society-religion.
Isn't it a pity that we play one-up games with one another? Wouldn't it be better to accept our differences and realise that God set them up? It reminds me of a story in which a Jewish child asked a Rabbi a question: ‘how can we all be the image of God if we are all so different?' The Rabbi answered, wisely, ‘we are all the image of God because we are all so different'.
God has a big vineyard, and wants fruit, grapes, and many good wines from it. From many different workers. With different ways of working.
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