Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 80:9, 12-16, 19-20
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:6-9
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 21:33-43
The parables of Jesus are among the most well-known of all biblical stories. They, like Aesop’s fables or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, interest us not only because of their original context, but because of their application to our own lives. We can see in ourselves the characters in the stories – like the boy who cried wolf or the ugly duckling.
Some parables are less obvious in their meaning and application for a modern audience. It can sometimes appear that the story is so directed at the people sitting in front of Jesus that there really is no context whereby meaning can be extracted for later generations. This weekend’s story, the Parable of the Tenants, falls into this category.
In this parable Jesus is letting the chief priests and the elders of the people know that they are – as the saying goes – on the wrong side of history. Jesus preaches the rise of the Gentiles within His Church as the fall-out from the mistreatment of the prophets and the murder of the Son. Those to whom Jesus speaks had consistently clung to the belief that their Abrahamic DNA was their “get out of jail free” card.
Jesus buries that belief when He says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” For Him, discipleship had nothing to do with who your father was, but had everything to do with who your Lord was. Elsewhere in the gospels He even goes so far as to tell the crowd that their father is Satan and not Abraham.
The centrality of this message is carried on in the work of St. Paul, the Church’s first great missionary. Paul travelled throughout the Mediterranean on three missionary journeys, spreading the Gospel to any audience that would listen. Whenever the Jews would turn a deaf ear to the Good News he would shift his attention to the Gentiles. Eventually, the conversion of Gentiles to the Faith became so universal that today one would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic who can trace her or his roots back to the Jewish converts of the first century.
All of this should serve as a wake-up call to those of us in the West. Just as the early Church moved from one of Jewish roots to one of Gentile dominance, so the modern Church is shifting from the decaying West to the blossoming South and East, with the election of a South American pope as only the most obvious sign. The day is coming when missionary priests from Africa and Asia will be an even more common sight in the parishes of North America and Europe. The future seems to lie in the fertile soil of places like Nigeria, the home of Bigard Memorial, the largest seminary in the world with almost eight hundred students.
I once heard a priest describe the faith in Africa as an inch deep and a mile wide, meaning that the faith was superficial despite its steady growth. Besides exhibiting the type of condescension that gave rise to the phrase ‘ugly American,’ it indicated a real blind-spot when looking at the vacuous faith of the West as well as a willful inability to read the signs of the times.
The Universal Church was bigger than the original community in Jerusalem and it is also bigger than the post-modern West. Rather than denigrating the faith life of those who are the future of the Church it might be better for us to see in them the fulfillment of Jesus’ statement that the Kingdom has been “given to a people that will produce its fruit.” Otherwise we too risk being caught on the wrong side of history.