The Living Stone

(For lack of sufficient time to prepare this Sunday’s homily, allow me to repost an old one with a few adjustments.)

Today’s readings center around the image of the vineyard. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah sings of his friend who gives all his love and care for his vineyard and looks forward to an abundant harvest. The friend is sorely disappointed, when at harvest time the vineyard yields only sour grapes. The song tragically ends with the owner destroying his vineyard.

In the gospel, Jesus takes the song to a higher level and develops it into a parable which reveals a deeper meaning. The parable tells of a landowner who plants a vineyard and provides everything needed for its full operation. He then leases it to tenants. At harvest time, he sends his messengers to collect his share of the harvest. The tenants however abuse and kill the messengers. The landowner sends more messengers, but the tenants deal with them in the same way. Finally, the landowner sends his own son, hoping that they will respect him. But the tenants do not spare the son either, thinking that by killing him they will acquire the property. As in the song of the vineyard, the parable takes on a tragic end. The owner of the vineyard “[puts] those wretched men to a wretched death and leases his vineyard to other tenants.”

The parable is an allegorical story, which Jesus directs primarily to the leaders of Israel. The landowner is God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the religious and political leaders of Israel, the messengers are the prophets and the landowner’s son is Jesus. The allusion is too obvious for his listeners to miss. In fact, the parable closes with the observation that, “When they heard his parables, the chief priests and the scribes realized he was speaking about them…”

The message is clear. God so loves his people (the vineyard) that he gives them all his personal care and attention to bring out the best in them. All he asks is a good return of produce. The fruit God expects is well described in the second reading: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious… anything of excellence and anything worthy of praise. God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed [instead], righteousness, but heard a cry!”

The endgame in both song and parable is ruthless and terrifying: the total destruction of the vineyard, on the one hand, and the dispossession and death of the wicked tenants, on the other. Does this mean that God is vengeful? Not really. This is simply the law of “spiritual physics” at work. When we respond to God’s grace, we flourish. When we don’t, we fall into ruin.

This is exactly what is happening today. Last Wednesday, Pope Francis published “Laudate Deum,” a sequel to “Laudato Si,” his first encyclical on the care of creation. The present letter warns of “grave consequences” if humanity continues to ignore the threat of climate change. Once again, we are reminded that this wonderful world created by God is a gift entrusted to us in stewardship. Unfortunately, like the wicked tenants in the parable, we have not been responsible stewards, acting like we own the world. We play gods. Driven by greed and pride, we abuse and tamper with nature and upset its original order, thus triggering climate change and causing countless catastrophes (the pandemic included). Today, we don’t just experience global warming, but global boiling. The miseries we now suffer are not a punishment from a vengeful God. They are of our own making.

While the parable may sound dark and depressing, it actually ends with a twist that gives the listener a glimmer of assured hope. The tenants indeed succeed in killing the son of the landowner (as the leaders of Israel would succeed in bringing Jesus to his death) but the parable ends by saying that “the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” What does this mean?

After his faith experience in the prison of Laur, Ninoy Aquino was totally converted from a consummate politician whose lone obsession was to become president of the Philippines to a patriot whose only desire was to restore freedom for his people, even at the cost of his own life. Because he was a threat to the administration, his enemies ordered his assassination, thinking that his cause would die with him. Instead, his death woke up an entire nation from their fear and emboldened them to free themselves from 14 years of dictatorship.

Somehow Ninoy typifies the rejected stone that became the cornerstone for a new Philippines. Unfortunately, the growth of a new people with their newfound freedom could not be sustained, thanks to the short memory and “damaged culture” of the Filipinos, not to mention the malicious attempts to re-write history and politicize Ninoy’s legacy.

Heroes, like Ninoy, can serve as a cornerstone for others only by inspiration but have no power to change lives. Jesus, instead, is the living cornerstone of the new Israel, the Church. By his death and resurrection, he has won life and salvation for all of us. Like the tenants, we can reject his message repeatedly. But as often as we reject him, so often does he return to offer his forgiveness and to rebuild our lives.

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