Psalm 80:9, 12-16, 19-20
I’ve always enjoyed building things. There’s something about doing something with your hands that gives you a great satisfaction at the end. One night when I was in 6th grade I went to my mom with the words that every parent loves to hear: “Mom, I just remembered I have a project due tomorrow morning. I have to build a pyramid.” My mom shrugged her shoulders at her forgetful son once again we got to work building my project. We had a cardboard base and found some sand-colored carpet in our garage to make a nice landscape. Then we took the cardboard and made a pyramid and covered it with the only things we had that would come close to looking decent: birdseed. A few small rocks and a fake tree supplied the finishing touches and I was thrilled. I brought it to school the next day proud as a peacock. I don’t remember what grade I received on it, but I remember bringing it back home and, unlike other projects that found the garbage asap, I placed in on my shelf to marvel at. Even when we moved houses a couple of times in subsequent years, I made sure to have a special box to ensure my birdseed pyramid arrived safely at the next place. I was proud of it, this little masterpiece I had made.
In the Scriptures today we hear of the Lord God making a masterpiece of His own, but rather than a little school project the masterpiece God was creating was His people, a nation that would spread the good news of His presence to the surrounding nations. But we hear that this wonderful masterpiece that God made didn’t turn out exactly as He had desired it. God put in a great effort to shape this people, this vineyard of the Lord, as our responsorial psalm calls to mind. He gets the best soil, sets up the terrain perfectly, builds all of the necessary elements, and plants the choicest grapes. And what does He get in return? Wild grapes that you can’t do a thing with other than leave it for the animals to devour. And so He does. Their mission to be the light of the world came, in the end, to them simply snuffing our their lights to remain in the darkness of sin. And with their choice made, the Lord had to change plans and choose a new path.
The Gospel account gives us the same tale but in a different form. This vineyard produces the fruits God desires, but here the tenants are the ones symbolizing the people of Israel and they refuse to give up the fruits that belong to the owner. This is the story of the Israelites. The servants were sent in the form of prophets and they were killed by the Israelites because they didn’t want to turn from sin. More prophets were sent, with the same results. Finally, the only son of the landowner is sent and he, too, is killed, as the people thirst for power, wealth, and honor. Rather than give the landowner what was rightly his, they sought to take it by force. Rather than wait for blessings from God that would come in the end, the Israelites sought to take blessings for themselves from the hand of the Lord, much like Adam & Eve in the beginning. They failed in their mission and because of that, new tenants were brought in that would cooperate – the gentile people, which includes most of us. The mission to spread the good news of God now falls to us and it is we who have the obligation to accomplish what was left undone before – to produce good fruits and to give them to the Lord for His glory, knowing that we will receives our inheritance at the end of our labors.
This weekend we celebrate Respect Life Sunday. This is a weekend each year where the Church invites us to reflect upon the dignity of the human person. That our dignity comes not from anything we do or possess, not from where we live or what ethnicity we are, nor from any characteristic other than that we have been created by God in His own image and likeness. The world doesn’t get this reality, but instead places the value of a person in how much they can produce, what they can do, what others can benefit from their presence. I’ve encountered it numerous times in my ministry and have heard of it many others secondhand. For instance, on several occasions I have visited with people who had a family member who was non-responsive, in a vegetative state, as it is often described. And the advice from doctors to these families was ‘if we withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration, it will help speed up the process of their death, since they really don’t have a purpose.’ Basically, the suggestion was ‘lets stop feedings them and giving them water so they can die, since they aren’t worth much as they are’. The families instinctively said, “Father, that doesn’t sound like it’s moral.” And I agreed. It’s likened to saying ‘well, if we just remove their oxygen, it’ll speed things along.’ Foolishness! I read recently about a woman in Oregon who had cancer and the chemo treatment she was offered by the doctors gave a 45% chance of extending her life over a year; most of us would likely jump at such odds. The problem was that her insurance wouldn’t support such a move. BUT they suggested that if she would pursue physician-assisted suicide, they would pay the bill in full. Respect for life? Or what about the 1.2 million children killed each year through abortion because ‘they aren’t really children; it’s more like a clump of cells’ or some other specious argument that never gets at the truth of the dignity of the child who is alive in the womb. Even in Louisiana, the most pro-life state in the country according to laws, we have men lined up at Angola waiting to be put to death because a judge has deemed them no longer worthy of having life; they aren’t productive anymore.
And the one that really gets at me because of the madness of it: furbabies. That’s right. Furbabies. How many in my generation and others don’t want to be inconvenienced with the gift of life that is a child, so they get a cat or dog as a substitute. They make a child created in the image and likeness of God equal to or even inferior to an animal, treating the animals as if it were a person. You may have seen the signs around town sometimes that say “Fill the void in your life” and it has a cutout of a cat next to a person. What?! Y’all, if the void in your life is filled with a cat, we have some serious problems to address! I love animals as much as anyone, but they aren’t people! To act otherwise is to blatantly reject the truth of the goodness of the human person.
The world around us doesn’t have a clue sometimes about the value of human life, so they need us to show them. They need us to bring them to an understand of their own worth and that of every other person on this earth from the smallest in the womb to those who are moments from crossing deaths door. We need to help the world see, but we have to make sure we can see it ourselves. There was an article recently about a museum where a janitor picked up what he thought was a bag of garbage, only to find later that it was an artist’s work of art. While I think that is an insightful commentary on the state of modern art, it also highlights the fact that sometimes we are like the janitor and can easily look upon others and see ‘trash’ where God sees a masterpiece that He has shaped and molded in His image.
The world needs our witness and the Lord longs to see zealous laborers in His vineyard producing great fruits. May the Eucharist we come to celebrate and receive today transform us, that we might be able to love as God loves and see as God sees, that in the face of each person we encounter we might recognize the image of God Himself and rejoice in the gift of yet another masterpiece form the Divine Artist.