Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew22:1-14
In contrast to the fig tree that Jesus cursed, because it produced nothing but leaves, neither vineyard described in today’s scripture readings failed to produce fruit. Instead, the problem was that one vineyard produced wild and sour grapes–despite being meticulously cared for–while tenants of the other refused to surrender or share its produce. Their refusal suggests that the grapes they were unwilling to part with were anything but wild and sour. And yet, whether sour or sweet, both vineyards became a source of misfortune for those to whom they were entrusted. And this is because not only the sour grapes of sin, vice and evil but also the sweet grapes of virtue and holiness can become avenues to spiritual harm and ultimate separation from God.
As Christians our Baptism, along with the sacraments of the Eucharist, Conformation and Penance, are the spiritual equivalents of the cultivation of that fertile hillside that was spaded, cleared of stones, and planted with the choicest vines. Our response to this loving care that our heavenly Vinedresser expends on the vineyard of our hearts will determine whether its grapes are wild, sour and inedible, or sweet and delicious. And herein lies the fundamental Christian truth according to which God cannot force us to be virtuous and holy but seeks our free cooperation. God freely and unsparingly offers his love and grace, but it is our choice whether to open ourselves to this love and mercy and thereby become those choice, sweet grapes from which can be made that good and noble wine of holiness and godliness that redounds to his glory.
However, even for those who do open themselves to God’s love and grace, and whose vineyard of the heart yields sweet and choice grapes, there is always the danger that this good harvest of virtue and holiness becomes an occasion for that insidious pride that is foolishly reluctant to give God the glory for his saving work. And when this pride takes root and permeates our entire being, then those who might otherwise benefit and share in the graces and gifts we have received are spurned and even abused by our lack of compassion and by our unmerciful judgment of those we deem spiritually inferior to ourselves. And so we replicate the reprehensible actions of those unworthy tenants who maltreated and destroyed those the landowner sent to obtain a share of the rich and abundant harvest.
And thus these stories of the two vineyards bear different, but similar, messages. The vineyard that produced wild and sour grapes reminds us that stubborn and longstanding resistance to God’s grace, his call to conversion, and his invitation to friendship risk a final severing of our relationship to God after which that inner vineyard of the heart becomes a desolate ruin, overgrown with thorns and briers and upon which no rain will ever fall. On the other hand the vineyard that did produce fine grapes but whose tenants withheld its produce cautions us that when virtue and perfection don’t open us to God and to our brothers and sisters, but instead becomes occasions for foolish pride and arrogant intolerance of others, then there is a similar severing of our relationship with God–one perhaps even less amenable to repentance and re-conversion.
Navigating the safe waters between this dangerous self-satisfied pride and that stubborn resistance to grace is the work of humility by which alone the heart remains open–both during initial conversion and at the summit of perfection. In this we are reminded that the fruit–those choice, sweet grapes–the Lord delights in and earnestly seeks, are not our virtues but rather the humble, open, and welcoming heart that these virtues bring about. May this morning’s Eucharist deepen in us this spirit of humility whereby our hearts can open to the one in whom our restless longings will finally cease and peace and joy be ours forever.