LITURGY AND LIFE
By Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joan Rivers died recently. In her 50-year career she perfected the art of transforming tragedy into comedy, thus illustrating how to reframe situations in new and life-giving ways. “I lived for nine years with a man with one leg,” she told audiences.” One leg! He lost it in World War II. . . . Well, he didn’t lose it, he knew exactly where he left it. . . .” Turning tragedy into new life is what Jesus was all about, is what our faith is all about. Today’s readings, however, show us the opposite, a love story turned tragedy with devastating effects. While often a favourite theme of Hollywood movies, such a message from the mouth of our own Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is rather unsettling, and so it should be.
What begins as a love song in Isaiah 5:1-7, with similar echoes in today’s Gospel, quickly turns into tragedy and judgment. Both texts make it crystal clear that God is the owner of the vineyard, which represents God’s people. The impending destruction is caused by the people’s failure to do what God expected and hoped for.
Jesus’ parable about the landowner and his vineyard bears uncanny similarities to the Isaiah text. Moved by love, trust and mercy, the landowner goes to great length to collect his rightful share of the harvest, to the point of even sending his own son. Again the people choose actions grounded in destructive motivations and vindictive attitudes, which lead to violence and murder.
Both vineyard owners go to great loving length to secure a fruitful harvest and constructive relationships — picking a good site, preparing the land, choosing the best plants, arranging for protection and for processing the grapes, and collecting a rightful share. But what they got was “wild grapes,” and violent mistreatment to the point of death. What God expected or hoped for does not come to pass; in other words God cannot guarantee results and the people’s failure to practice justice and mercy invites disaster and chaos. Jesus’ words in verse 43, therefore, should not surprise. Wouldn’t we do the same thing?
As God’s people we are free to respond to God or not. Such freedom is crucial for genuine love relationships to exist. But it is precisely this freedom that makes for the possibility of disastrous outcomes. The tone of judgment in both the Isaiah text and in the Gospel does not refer to God’s need/desire to punish or to get even with sinful people. Rather, judgment is simply the set of destructive consequences resulting from our own choices. In other words, we invite our own destruction by failing to practice compassion, justice and mercy. Ask anyone who’s lived through a failed marriage, a union beginning as a love song and ending in ruins.
When we fail to act as God acted in Jesus — with violent vengeance or rigid legalism instead of loving forgiveness — are we not failing to embody God? When we ourselves have been forgiven for “killing the Son” (and yes, we continue to betray and “kill” Jesus every day by our failure to embody mercy and justice), can we withhold forgiveness to others? Even when someone sows destruction and chaos, causing countless to suffer, are we going to make the same age-old response of “putting those wretches to a miserable death”? Even when someone is heartbroken over her own bad choices and sinful behaviour, resulting in marriage break-up or in addictive and self-destructive behaviour? God knows how miserably we fail in exercising compassion, justice and mercy, how much we’d rather quote the letter of the law than the spirit of the Gospel.
This Sunday, Oct. 5, the Synod on the Family begins in Rome. Much ink has been spilled already on speculations and expectations, hopes and fears, outcomes and conclusions. What kind of fruit will emerge from the vine of this synod gathering? There are now more ex-Catholics than Catholics in North America — many have left because they experience the church not as a field hospital for the wounded but as a court of law judging harshly their flawed attempts to live good lives, where receiving Christ’s body and blood in the eucharist feels more like a reward for good behaviour than much-needed medicine for the soul. They leave searching in other places for fruits of the kingdom.
Are we in the church producing good or wild fruit? And will we get to remain bearers of truly Good News, the news of God’s infinite mercy, or will this task be given to a “people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”?
Several significant voices in the church have been quite vocal recently about the church’s institutional failure to embody Christ’s mercy, preferring the impositions of rules instead. If we as followers of Jesus wish to produce kingdom fruits, we would do well to heed their observations.
First, Cardinal Walter Kasper: The precept of mercy applies not only to individual Christians but to the church as a whole. Many ask: If God is always merciful, why is the church not the same? Or, why does the church not seem to be as merciful as God? The question expresses the uneasiness of many Christians. . . . The Gospel is against a legalistic understanding of canon law. Canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other (Cardinal Walter Kasper, America, Sept. 15, 2014).
Next, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium: Jesus did indeed die “all against one” on the cross, but he did not live his life “one against all.” More than any other religious leader, Jesus opened his heart and his arms to people whoever they were and whatever their experience in life. There were no walls or boundaries around his mercy and compassion. . . . In its relationship with the world and the people who live in it, the church should exhibit the same openness and compassion as its founder. It can fulfil its mission only via the path of dialogue. It has no other choice, if it wants to maintain its identity and credibility (Pastoral Letter, September 2014).
Last but not least, Pope Francis himself: I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. . . . More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (The Joy of the Gospel, #49).
I imagine Joan Rivers might have said: “Remember, sour/wild grapes never get rave reviews and pucker the lips; good fruit stimulates the taste buds into wanting more. So why not make them want more?”
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca