Passion Sunday: The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Because Christ Jesus has made me his own
All three readings this Sunday have to do with property rights. As mundane as that may sound it is just that which has caused most wars and violent conflict in human history, from Helen of Troy to two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, from the Crusades to most recently the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was the issue which caused our own Civil War or as some of us call it more accurately, the War between the States. It is what is at stake in the controversy over gun control and, at least on one side, the issue concerning abortion. One way or another in most of our most serious disputes the questions come up “Who owns it?” “Who does it belong to?” “Who gives you the right to take what is mine?” And we should not forget that God had to evict Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Obviously this is the source of the violence in the Gospel today: the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. This is perhaps the most transparent of all of the parables of Jesus so we can dispense with the allegory. God has planted Israel, His vineyard, and let it out to his people, or more precisely, to their leaders who have just attacked Jesus. All God asks is that they should send Him some of the fruit of the vineyard. God send his servants, the prophets to collect the fruit but the tenants beat them, cast them out and refuse the owner His share. Finally, He sends His Son but they cast Him out of the vineyard and kill Him.
There was not a Jew there that day who did not know at once what this parable was about. The image of the Vineyard comes from the Prophet Isaiah: a love song which God sings to his people but a warning as well: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, he looked for justice but behold bloodshed”. They are going to kill the Son because the vineyard is theirs or at least they think it should be.
And there is not a Christian here today who does not get it. But we know the sequel of the story. It is what we shall solemnly celebrate in Holy Week. The tenants will not get the inheritance. Instead God the Father will stake His claim not just upon Israel but upon the whole world and He will do so by putting the whole world in the shadow of His Son’s Cross. By dying and rising on the third day Jesus claims the whole creation for His Father, including you and me and everyone, as His property.
So St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus has made me His own.” Unlike the wicked tenants Paul is willing to suffer “the loss of all things and count them as refuse.” The word ‘refuse’ is much stronger in the Greek but polite company forbids me translating it. St. Paul is talking about all his accomplishments as a Pharisee. Fasting almsgiving, praying are not enough; God has to stake His claim on Paul by the Sign of the Cross which reads “Sold.” For we are all bought at price of the blood of Jesus and, although we lose our property and rights, we gain everything.
The grounds upon which we are the recipients of God’s grace and blessing is that we belong to him. We have to read the parable this Sunday along with the Parable of the Laborers, who came to work early, the third, the sixth, the ninth hour and the eleventh hour. They are all paid the same wage for “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”
What we celebrate in the Great Week and especially in the Triduum, the three most holy days of the Year of Christ is that we are a people whom God has formed for himself, as He says in the reading from Isaiah. “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” The new Vineyard, the Church, whose very name means “belonging to the Lord” is born from the pierced side of Jesus, as St John Chrysostom so eloquently preached. From the side of the Lord there flowed blood and water, the two sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism.
From these two sacraments the Church is born. . . . Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. ‘Bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh!’
The asceticism of Lent, fasting, abstinence, self-denial, is only practice for Holy Week. Preparing us to be dispossessed of our property, our rights, our claims upon God, to prepare us to belong to Him. The stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday stripping us of our prerogatives. The absence of Mass of Good Friday reminding us of loss of all things. Just because we, all we are and all we have, belongs to the Father.
But the warning stands. We must present the fruits to the Father: holiness, good works, new Christians, repentance, worship, love and obedience or the vineyard will be given to others.
Because Christ Jesus has made me his own