This is the third Sunday in a row in which Jesus uses the image of a vineyard to describe something: the kingdom of heaven, or in today’s Gospel, the Kingdom of Israel. And our Gospel reading is very much linked to our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, which talks about a “friend’s vineyard”. The friend works hard in his vineyard to make it fruitful, so that it will produce an abundant harvest: he clears the stones out of it, plants the vines, builds a watchtower, and so on. But despite all his hard work, the vineyard is a disappointment: it only produced wild grapes, or basically not good grapes for making wine. In his frustration, he abandons it.
I suppose most of us can relate: you work hard at something, perhaps planning for a big event, and then no one shows up. You study for hours for a test, and then bomb it. I think farmers can especially relate to it: you can work as hard as possible, and then you end up having bad weather that ruins the harvest.
On one level, both the first reading and the Gospel refer to Israel, or more specifically, to the chief priests and religious leaders of Israel. God has done everything for Israel; he has performed miracles for them, delivered them again and again from their enemies, sent prophets to them to call them back to Him, and so on, and yet they have failed to produce good fruit. And so, as Jesus tells them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” This does not mean that God is going to abandon the Jews for the Gentiles; rather, he is going to respond to the lack of fruitfulness or faithfulness found in the Jewish leaders by establishing a new covenant with both Jews and Gentiles.
I think there is another level of meaning to this parable of the vineyard, however. In a sense, each one of us is God’s vineyard that He seeks to cultivate. He calls to us repeatedly and in different ways; He gives his grace to us in prayer, in the sacraments, in Scripture, in the community of faith. In fact, God has given us everything we have. He has given all these good things to us so that we might bear fruit.
What does it mean to bear fruit? It means that we cooperate with the work that God is doing in us and then respond to it. We cooperate with God’s work in us by paying attention to the ways that God is trying to speak to us or work in us, and we respond to them by taking action. So for example, by paying attention to that interior nudge we sometimes feel that we need to pray more, or reach out to someone who might be in need, or share some of the gifts God has given us with the Church and with those who might be in need.
When we cooperate and then respond to the Lord, we will bear fruit. Bearing fruit is a metaphor for producing more love. If we listen to the Lord and cooperate with his work in us, we will grow in love – we will be able to love God more and in a purer way. We will likewise be able to love others more and in a purer or more selfless way. The more we love, the less our own self-interest gets in the way.
These readings have a challenge for us. The challenge is this: God wants us to bear fruit. In fact, he expects us to bear fruit. He wants us to grow to love Him and others more and better. It would be utterly illogical and ridiculous to say that God is not working in us. Of course He is; why would He create us and then not work in us or call us? He calls every single person He has ever created and desires that each one of us end up with him in heaven. If He is calling us, and He is, that means we have to pay attention to how he might be calling us. To do that, we have to pray: we have to take the time each day to sit down and spend time with God. Don’t worry, it will not be wasted time.
And if we persevere in that daily prayer and in receiving the sacraments, in spite of our own weaknesses and shortcomings and so on, then He will be able to work in us and produce fruit. Because it really is the Lord and not us who does the work, just like the owner of the vineyard in our readings. Our part is so small compared to God’s.
But we do have a part to play, and that is where the challenge comes in. We have to take the time to pray and listen to the Lord and try to cooperate with the work He is trying to do in us. We hear the unfortunate results of not bearing fruit in our readings today, how the vineyard ends up an overgrown, trampled ruin.
No matter where we are in life or in our relationship with God, we are always in a sense at a starting point. God is always working – or at least trying to work – in us. He is always trying to prune away the dead or dying vines because that is necessary in order for the healthy vines to grow and flourish. What are those “dead vines” in your life – those things that are holding you back from growing closer to God and letting Him work in you? What are those things that prevent you from praying? What are those things that prevent you from loving and serving Him and others? Cooperate with the Lord and carefully remove from your life anything that doesn’t lead you closer to Him, and replace it with what does. If we let Him, God will work in us and we will bear an abundant harvest of love in this life and the next.