These first days of fall, with their crisp mornings, luminous and fleeting sunshine, cool afternoon breezes that rustle the crisping, colorful foliage take me back to harvest time in Chile. The grape harvest from late February to early April in fairytale places like the Colchagua Valley and Casablanca is an earthy, deeply human event that brings out the best in man and nature.
I would slip away from the everyday demands of ministry in the city to bless the fruits of the season, commend the workers to God’s providence and ask the Lord of the harvest to hold back the rains of winter until the grapes could be safely reaped and stored. Everything about those days is beautiful and subtly sacred and it became clear to me why the vineyard is one of the preferred images in both Old and New Testaments to teach us about the Creator and his relationship with all the created.
Even now, in Chile, most of the vineyards are family owned enterprises. I was always enthralled by the unique relationship between the owner, the workers, the winemakers and the vineyard itself – land, vines and climate – for its oneness of purpose and single-minded devotion.
Our last three Sundays of ordinary time have dealt us Gospel parables set against the backdrop of the vineyard. Timely and engrossing, they speak to us today even as they did in Jesus’ moment of the divine drama playing out in human history, as rich and complex as the wines that are the vineyards ultimate vindication.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus paraphrases Isaiah’s ‘song of the vineyard’ for the religious leaders of his audience with an added twist: the owner’s lament is now directed not at the miserable fruits of the harvest, but at those who have been charged with reaping and delivering the fruit in its due time.
All Jesus’ parables are ultimately self-revealing, but this one seems to intimate painfully more than we might wish to comprehend.
When all the emissaries have been dispatched to recover the fruits of the vineyard, when all have met the mean fate that the tenants have prepared for them, Jesus says, “Finally he sent his son to them.”
Mark’s retelling of the tale drives the point home with starker, more desperate phrasing: “He had but one left to send, a beloved son. He sent him to them last of all thinking, ‘They will respect my son’.”
I am reminded of one of the unanswerable questions that theologians ponder and students of theology, like me, are required to work through and read about in theoretical terms at some point in their studies...
Does God suffer? Can the immutable, ever same, impassive Divinity experience what we call pain... loss... emptiness? Pain implies change, movement, imperfection: realities we can hardly attribute to the unchanging Foundation of all there is.
Yet Jesus insinuates just that. The owner of the vineyard relinquishes ‘the only one he has left’. He puts at risk and ultimately accepts the loss of ‘the last one’, all he had left, all that was truly his.
Paul’s reflections on kenosis, on God’s emptying of self – notably expressed in his letter to the Philippians which, coincidently, is the second reading during these weeks of ordinary time – are restricted to the Son... almost as if the incarnation, the Son’s full identification with human state and circumstance, were the necessary condition for emptiness and suffering.
But Jesus puts the origin of drastic self-surrender in the Father. It is the predisposition of the Father to lose the Son that enables the Son to be lost. The parable of the vineyard posits the pain and loss of the Father. Does that not also appear to be the dramatic core of ‘the prodigal son’?
The revelation – that only the Son can make – of a quality in the Father best expressed by an analogy with human pain and loss, better yet, with human capacity for radical self-sacrifice is the least ‘theoretical’ of all revealed truths.
It means that reckless abandonment of self, giving regardless of the cost, surrender that finds no kinship with defeat... are the very fiber of this world’s reality which reflects in all its mysterious nuances the heart of its Creator.
This alone sustains our hope in a world that never tires of beating it down and smothering it... in a futile attempt to wrest the inheritance from the Son.
These are my thoughts as I head down for the first of today’s three Eucharistic celebrations. I can only appeal to the benevolence of my parishioners...