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Receiving the messengers

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Gospel Commentary Oct. 4, Mt 21:33-43

The parable Jesus tells in our Gospel today perfectly encapsulates the phrase: “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Jesus is palpably frustrated with the lack of faith and comprehension shown by the chief priests and elders. How could the chief priests reject God himself when he’s right in front of their noses?  As a result, he tells the story of the vineyard owner who is wronged by his tenant farmers: First they steal his produce, then they hurt his servants and messengers, and finally even put his son to death.  It’s a story of unbelievable proportions, or so it seems. At the end, Jesus puts the question to his hearers:  What would you do if you were the vineyard owner? Their answer is simple: Put those wicked men to death.

The punchline is that the story describes the history of Israel’s rejection of God perfectly. It’s a sketch of the Old Testament, leading from Moses right up to Jesus, and the condemnable actions that the crowds find in the bad tenants is true of their own ancestors. Consider: God set up a vineyard for them by giving them the promised land. He gave it to them to tend that it might bear fruit, the fruit of true worship of God. Yet again and again they worshipped strange Gods, tortured and sometimes even killed the prophets, and in a few short chapters from today’s Gospel, they will even put Jesus, God’s own son, to death. They ignored God’s gift, they ignored the messengers and now they’re poised to ignore God’s only son. Even now, they’ve missed the point of the story entirely, unknowingly pronouncing sentence on themselves in condemning the tenants. They rejected the messengers, and thus salvation.

Yet the Gospel parable also provides a challenge for us as well. God has given us each a vineyard to tend in our lives. Are we open to God’s messengers in our lives? Are we willing to be good tenants who give him the first fruits of our lives? Often, the Lord sends us messengers and mini-prophets disguised as friends, neighbors or even life-changing events. More often still, those messages come to us through the challenging voice of church teaching. Are we willing to hear those messengers out? Do we even recognize them?

The frightening truth of our Gospel is that the people of Israel had every reason to believe the messengers. God gave them the promised land with miracles and gave plain, clear instructions on how to live. The prophets did likewise, and Jesus summed up the practice in perfection. One might wonder what more they could possibly want? The truth is that it’s possible to develop a bad habit of tuning out the messengers, ignoring the teaching and even rejecting God when he’s standing right in front of us.

What can save us from a similar fate? How do we remain open to Godly encounters and messengers?  Simple: We have to be on the lookout for them, ready and willing to receive them when they come. It is essential to cultivate an interior disposition that seeks God daily. This starts with a daily habit of prayer and study of the faith, and continues with daily repentance and living the sacramental life of the church.  Yet it also involves an openness to be corrected and an understanding that the church’s teaching will challenge each of us to change. If a fellow parishioner or priest confronted and corrected us with Scripture or the catechism, would we be open to taking it seriously and changing? Christ offers us such grace and mercy, even his very self, through such messengers. May we receive them, repent, grow and bear much fruit.

Fr. Miserendino is parochial vicar of St. Bernadette Church in Springfield.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020