27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 5, 2014

The punchline of one of my favorite jokes has lost its impact because of two events: the new translation of the Roman Missal and recent repairs to our audio system in the church at All Saints.

There was an aging priest who was pastor of an aging parish. One Sunday, while the priest was saying Mass, the church’s audio system began to turn off and on at random. The priest tried to compensate for the malfunctioning audio system by shouting. Predictably, the audio system would come back on while he was shouting, and deafen the congregation.

The congregation, for their part, did their best to make their responses at the appropriate times; this, of course, was quite difficult as they could not hear what the priest was saying. At one point, the audio system shut down again. The priest muttered to himself, “There’s something really wrong with this microphone.” The people saw him speaking, and responded with a hearty, “And also with you, Father.”

The punchline doesn’t have the same impact in the new translation of the Roman Missal: “And with your spirit” doesn’t quite communicate the same meaning. On the brighter side, the technical problems we’ve had here for over a year seem to have been solved. I had to spend quite a lot of money for new audio components, but it was well worth the expense. After months of trial and error, I think I can say that I’m done with trying to diagnose the problem. I hope that the audio issues are solved, at least for a while.

Some things should come to a speedy and certain end. Problems with the technology upon which we depend fall into that category of experiences. It is reasonable to expect to use something like an audio system, and have it work without noticeable problems. While there are some things that should be judged “done,” over and solved, there are other things that should never come to an end. This Sunday’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel speaks about something that believers should never bring to an end, and never judge to be “done.”

The allegory* in this Sunday’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel was addressed “to the chief priests and the elders of the people.” (Matthew 21:33) Those religious leaders were represented by the laborers who were entrusted with the responsibility to produce an appropriate harvest for the landowner (God). The story was intended to arouse righteous indignation among those religious leaders over the injustice done by the laborers who failed to return the fruits of the harvest to the landowner. The story is then turned into an accusation against the religious leaders themselves. Jesus said to them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43)

Matthew’s church community was trying to make sense out of the cool reception that the Gospel message had received from their neighbors. A message from God about renewed faithfulness to the Covenant with Moses was now being preached to, and believed by, gentiles who had no previous claim to salvation. How was it that the message delivered to God’s People had fallen on deaf ears? The author of Matthew’s Gospel attributed this to the faithlessness of the religious leaders of the time.

Those who had been entrusted to bring a rich harvest of faith to God had failed in their sacred duties. The faithlessness of the people was judged to be a reflection and consequence of the faithlessness of the people’s leaders. As a result, both the responsibility for religious leadership and the preaching of the Gospel message were being taken away, and given to new leadership who would act responsibly.

This allegory was addressed to Matthew’s church community as instruction about what they were experiencing at the time, but it still holds a timely message for us. God offers salvation freely to all. Salvation is a gift that must be accepted freely, but it is one that comes with no guarantee of permanency for those who do not remain faithful. Next Sunday’s Gospel reading contains another story about the possibility of losing the gift of salvation. In that passage, Jesus summed up his teaching by saying, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

This warning applies to all believers, not just to those of past generations. It is a warning to us about the fatal consequences of complacency. Faith is a relationship that must be nourished constantly by one’s conscious desire to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Faith does not grow in the absence of conscious intent and habitual practice. The religious leaders to whom this story was addressed were scrupulous in their observance of religious practices, but their religious practices were devoid of faith.

The Gospel’s warning about the dangers of faithlessness and complacency is still pertinent today. There is no point at which we’re “done” with practicing the Catholic Faith. We should never judge ourselves to have accomplished successfully the demands of faith. There is no point at which there is a legitimate end to Mass attendance, personal prayer, almsgiving, repentance or forgiving those who sin against us. Faith is a way of life rather than an accomplishment. Faith is not a finite set of things, some of which should be done and others avoided; faith is a lifelong commitment and practice.

Just as in Jesus’ day, religious practice has no saving effect in the absence of conscious effort to follow the will of God. This was one of the aspects of Jesus’ teaching that was so troubling to the religious leadership of the time. He said repeatedly that diligent religious practice had no positive effect when done for its own sake; rather, the saving effects of religious practice were the result of complying with the spirit, not just the letter, of God’s Law.

The wicked laborers in the allegory worked only for themselves, and disregarded the landowner who made their labor possible by planting the grape vines, building a wall around the vineyard and constructing a wine press. They took the landowner’s investment, and tried to keep it for themselves. In doing so, they lost everything.

There is an infinite distance between performing religious actions for one’s personal gain and performing religious actions for the glory of God. That infinite distance is easy enough to perceive. Would you go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if you knew that the forgiveness of the sins you confessed would last only for a limited time? Would you continue to receive Holy Communion if you knew that it was a token reminder of the Crucified Jesus rather than his real presence in your life? If we expect God’s enduring mercy, we owe God our enduring fidelity. Temporary religious sentiment doesn’t bridge the gap between us and God.

God’s investment in our salvation isn’t limited by time, or even by our human frailty. As a consequence, we are self-deceived when we limit our response to God’s Grace. If an hour spent in Sunday Mass is the only thing about one’s life that is recognizable as Catholic, it is a fruitless hour. If prayers and devotions are only brief interruptions in a life of anger, envy, vengeance or selfishness, those prayers amount to nothing. Busy pursuit of “churchy” activities for the purpose of feeling good about oneself, or getting another person’s attention (even God’s), results in making self, rather than God, the center of one’s life.

The Gospel warns that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43) The fruit of the Kingdom is not measured in numbers of prayers recited or numbers of Sacraments received or numbers of devotions offered or numbers of random acts of kindness. The harvest that God seeks is the total offering of one’s life in service to God’s will, a sacrificial gift so compelling that it draws others to make the same sacrifice.

A few thoughts on parable and allegory:

(*) Jesus’ preaching often took the form of parables. A parable is metaphorical; it is the comparison of two dissimilar things. For example, Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to mundane items such as mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19) or yeast in a batch of dough (Luke 13:20-21). The Kingdom of God is not actually like a seed or a fungus, but it can be said to grow in a rapid fashion like some living things grow large from small beginnings.

As parables are metaphorical, they can be interpreted in multiple ways. The parable of the prodigal son can be read as a story about the repentance of the younger son, or about the profligate mercy of the father, or about the jealousy of the elder son or about the sense of scandal engendered in the townsfolk who witnessed the prodigal family’s overly dramatic escapades. All of these, and more, are legitimate interpretations. The wide range of interpretations is possible because of the pliability of metaphors.

Allegory is a very different form of literature. In an allegory the author uses fictional characters and events to refer to actual historical events and persons. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example, is an allegory about the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. Orwell intended the reader of the story to perceive Napoleon the pig as a representation of Joseph Stalin. Allegory doesn’t lend itself to multiple, varied interpretations as parable does.

For reasons peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel, the author of the Gospel habitually allegorizes the parables of Jesus. We see an example of this tendency in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus told a parable about a landowner and some tenant farmers. The fictional characters in this story are reminiscent of the fictional characters in the parable from two weeks ago. (Matthew 20:1-16) In that parable, some of the workers complained that they were not treated fairly by the landowner. In this parable, the workers take matters into their own hands rather than merely complain.

In its original setting the parable in today’s Gospel reading was probably intended to hold a message similar to the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-8). The dishonest steward was fired for embezzling from his employer. Prior to losing his authority he ingratiated himself to his master’s clients by reducing their debts. The master congratulated the crafty steward for his efforts to look out for himself. Jesus made a startling comparison between the dishonest steward and a faithful disciple who seeks the Kingdom of God. Jesus was not encouraging dishonesty but rather encouraging believers to make every possible effort to enter into the Kingdom.

When Jesus told the parable in today’s Gospel reading he was probably using the greed of the laborers who killed the landowner’s son as a startling metaphor about the deep desire that one should cultivate for the Kingdom. Because parables are open-ended and metaphorical, this was not a reference to any particular individuals but to disciples in general. As Jesus said elsewhere, discipleship is an all-or-nothing-at-all enterprise; no sacrifice or effort is too great in comparison to gaining entrance into the Kingdom.

Matthew’s allegory, by comparison, reinterprets the story as referring only to an historical event contemporary to his church community. This allegory is very similar to the story told to King David by the prophet Nathan. Nathan confronted David about a secret sin. David had seduced Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers. David then sent the man into battle in the hope that he would be killed, thereby allowing David to keep Bathsheba as his own. In the story Nathan told David a rich man stole the single possession of a poor man, his little ewe lamb. Upon hearing the story David declared, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves death!” (2 Samuel 12:5) Nathan replied to David, “You are the man!”

The allegory in today’s Gospel reading was intended to shame the religious leaders of the time by identifying them as the wicked tenant farmers who tried to steal from the landowner rather than fulfilling their responsibility to produce a return on the landowner’s investment.

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