Usurpers of the Vineyard

(Homily Twenty-Seventh Sunday, Year A)

This Sunday Jesus gives us a third vineyard parable. In contrast to the past two Sundays it has an ominous, even violent character. On one level we can say the parable has been fulfilled in Jesus' Passion, but really it applies to every generation of Christians, in some ways especially to our own. Jesus prophecies the rise of servants who will rebel against the vineyard owner (God himself) and attempt to take it over for their own purposes.

This week the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) gave us a glimpse into the current effort to usurp Jesus' vineyard. Frontline presented what was ostensibly a documentary about the twenty year papacy of Pope John Paul II. However, it seemed more a forum for dissenters from Catholic teaching, many of whom bitterly criticized the current Holy Father. My purpose is not to question the use of tax money to produce what was overall an attack on the pope. I recognize that they would naturally focus on controversy in order to make a more engaging program. Nor am I ungrateful for some beautiful, powerful scenes such as showing the Holy Father in intense prayer or placing his hands on the heads and caressing the faces of young people. Rather I would like to focus on what it revealed about "usurpers" in the Lord's vineyard.

Those who wish to take over the vineyard use two strategies to discredit Jesus' teaching. First they ascribe irrational motives to those who teach in Jesus' name. What we saw in the Frontline documentary was a constant probing of the psychological origins of the pope's teaching. For example, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as his opposition to ordination of women are attributed to the early death of his mother and his failure to come to grips with that traumatic event. Maybe, but could they not also be explained by his loyalty to Jesus and the two thousand years of constant teaching and practice in His Church?

The second device to discredit Jesus' teaching is to accuse its representative of inconsistency, even hypocrisy. The dissenters kept repeating things like, "He defends justice and democracy outside the Church, but inside he promotes injustice and authoritarianism." These charges were made so facilely, it is hard to sort them out. But let me give a couple of quick comparisons. Suppose a university president criticizes some piece of government legislation. Do we then call him a hypocrite because he does not allow the faculty and student body to vote on every university policy? Not at all. We recognize that a university (or a hospital or a corporation) is a voluntary organization with its own constitution. The fact they are hierarchies does not discredit them any more than it does the army or successful families. Why is it unjust or even undemocratic for the Church to have its own procedures and to be governed by a hierarchy? I have sometimes wanted to say to dissenters, "If hierarchies are so repressive, drop out of your HMO, quit your job at Microsoft, don't send your son to the university, but please do not pretend the Catholic Church is the only hierarchical organization on the planet."

A woman who wanted to become a priest accused the Church of injustice and she did so in a most emotional way. Eyes brimming with tears, voice cracking, she talked about her desire to be a priest and how unfair she was denied because of gender. I was eating some crackers with hummus and began coughing so I am not sure I felt her pain. I would have tried harder if I shared the assumption that the Church should operate like a beehive or even like an efficient modern corporation (where gender is ignored, in theory, in order to attain maximum production). But the more adequate comparison is the performing arts like Broadway or even Hollywood. They attempt to dramatically represent some human inner reality. There gender is hardly nugatory. It is paramount. The fact that as a male I would never be considered for a role opposite Tom Cruise is not discrimination.

In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul spoke about the widespread and systematic dissent* which has grown up in today's Church. This fulfills the terrible prophecy of Isaiah. God cleared a fertile area and planted a vineyard. He naturally expected full, sweet grapes, suitable for making delicious wine. But it yielded wild grapes, sour, shriveled, bitter. That concisely describes the results of dissent. The dissenter wants freedom from constraint to grow in any direction he chooses. To stay on the arbor seems so restrictive and dull. In response I would like to offer what I have learned from twenty eight years of hearing confessions (not to mention my own divided heart). Sin, self exaltation and dissent all have the same attraction. From the outside they seem exciting and adventurous, but once we pursue them they become dreary, even cruel and deceptive. Those who reach out for them actually become the illusion they try to grasp - sour, bitter, shriveled.

I do not want to make too much of the PBS documentary. It's just that it is fresh in my mind and provides some useful examples for the usurpation we face in the Church today. Toward the end there was a recognition that maybe the pope is onto something. They showed part of the Dr. Nathanson's video, the Silent Scream which lays bare the horrible reality of abortion. One could not help but connect it to earlier scenes of the Holocaust and ask what is my own response in face of such atrocities. Like the Holocaust it requires a special vocabulary to cover up the truth.

Our local paper** had an editorial on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act which illustrates this use (or misuse) of language. It speaks about the danger of "increasing the state's authority over a pregnant woman's body." The bill would "erode women's reproductive rights." It spoke against an "elected governmental body" which would "redefine the uterus as a glorified day care." Instead it took comfort from the fact that "fortunately, federal courts are blocking these laws one by one." After all, the courts have "ruled that reproductive freedom is part of the constitutional right to privacy; the state can claim a compelling interest only after the fetus can survive outside the womb." The editorial made it clear this type of language is necessary so that the unborn child will not be recognized as a "separate person."

The anti-fetus editorial was on my mind as I watched the PBS documentary. It showed stunning footage of the Warsaw ghetto being demolished, many of its inhabits burned alive inside the buildings. The horror was intensified by images of a carousel which continued to turn while innocent people were slaughtered. Before such a thing could happen, the Nazis redefined the Jewish people as non-persons. Then they recast them as threats to the well being of others. It's easy to look back and criticize those we judge did nothing to stop the Holocaust. But what about us today? How will history look on us? More important, how will the Lord look upon us? It is clear he has taken great care where he has planted each one of us. He expects a certain fruit in return.


*"It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine" (Veritatis Splendor #4) Please see full paragraph and other footnotes

**The Seattle Times, September 28, 1999


Fr. Cusick "no salvation outside church for those who commit apostasy..."

From Archives (for Twenty-seventh Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2014: Trust No Matter What Week 2
2011: In the Midst of Troubles
2008: He Leased It to Tenants
2005: Have No Anxiety At All
2002: The Betrayers
1999: Usurpers of the Vineyard

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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