A: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Just War Principles and Iraq

October 6, 2002

Matthew 21:33-43

Not all the parables of Jesus show us how to live.  Some merely describe the world as it is, and sometimes those descriptions can be frightening.  This is the case with today’s parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard.  This parable does not show us what we need to do, but instead describes a frightening pattern that is present in our world: the pattern of escalating violence.  The tenants kill the owner’s slaves, then they kill more slaves, then they kill his son, and in turn the owner comes and kills them. There are no winners in this parable.  Everyone is mortally wounded. This parable is not an example but is rather a warning, a warning of how dangerous it is to live in a world where violence can spin out of control and hurt us all. As Americans, the warning of this parable is particularly appropriate for us today as our country contemplates war with Iraq.

I know that you are aware that our congress, and indeed our entire country, is now involved in a debate whether it is appropriate for us to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power.  The gospel reminds us that you and I, as Christian believers, must make our voices a part of that debate.  As Catholic Christians we recognize that God is the author of all things and that the life on this earth is something precious.   We are a community that strives to protect life: to protect the unborn life in the womb, to protect the value of those who suffer the challenges of mental or physical disability, to uplift the value of the poor, to protect victims of verbal or physical abuse.  This is the stance that we take as a community because we value and respect life.  We understand that any military action threatens life, and therefore we believe that military action must be limited only to extreme cases.  This is why our voices must be a part of this discussion of American policy.  It is connected to our faith.

Our Catholic tradition gives us guidance here.  This is not the first time that Catholic Christians have struggled with the realities of military intervention.   Over the centuries the Catholic experience has developed a set of principles that are meant to guide us as these kinds of decisions are made.  Catholic moral teaching calls these the Just War Principles.  In these principles there is an overwhelming presumption against the use of military force.  This is because military action will almost always inflict real harm on some form of life.  But the Just War Principles say that when certain conditions are met, military force can in fact be justified as a part of a just war.

Last month, the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote a letter to President Bush saying that according to Catholic teaching, any unilateral, preemptive strike into Iraq at this time could not be justified under the principles of the just war.  Now I know that the stock of the Bishops is rather low at this time because of their mishandling of the sexual abuse issues.  Nevertheless, they remain the leaders of our church community and when they speak on an important issue we should consider what they say as part of our own conscience formation.  In the letter to President Bush many reasons are given explaining why the present action that the United States is contemplating cannot be justified.  (If you want to read all of them there are copies of the letter in the kiosk.***)  But let me share just one reason with you.

According to the just war principles, military force can be justified only when an attack or a threat by another nation is lasting, grave, and certain.  The United States Bishops believe we do not, at present,  meet the requirement of certainty.  I agree with their assessment.  There has been no clear-cut connection established between the attack of September 11th and Iraq.  Moreover, there does not seem to be now an immediate and grave threat from Iraq to our country.  Now clearly Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and we would all be much better off if he were not in power.  However, what is being contemplated is the use of direct violence, and that use must meet a higher criteria than simply the elimination of future problem.

Clearly, the situation in the world today is complex.  However, we are as a country are now standing on the brink of war. This is why we as Christian believers must raise our voice and ask serious questions.  Such questioning is not simply our moral responsibility but also a part of our democratic process.  We need to ask, is military intervention the only option?  Is it the best option? And if it were to be used, could it be justified?  These are the questions that we must bring to our prayer.  These  are questions we must discuss with one another.  These are questions we should help raise in the minds of other Americans.

The warning of today’s parable must be taken seriously.  We live in a world where violence begets violence.  We live in a world where the destruction of human life can all too easily escalate.  We owe it to ourselves to make sure that if our country uses military force, that use of violence will not create evils that are greater than the evil we seek to eliminate.  As Christians and as Americans we must not only assure ourselves that military action is a just action; we must also try to be very sure that if we go to war, such violence is truly a last resort.

The Mystery of God’s Choice

October 2, 2005

Matthew 21:33-43

Today’s parable is peculiar.  It is not only violent, but parts of it do not make much sense.  With their previous behavior, why would the landowner think that the tenants would respect his son?  Why would the tenants imagine that if they killed the son, they would gain the inheritance?  In short this is a difficult parable to interpret as a whole.  But what we can do is zero in on particular details in this parable to see what they reveal about God and about us.  This is what I propose to do this weekend.

The one thing that is quite clear in the parable is that the landowner should have shown more care in choosing the tenants to run his vineyard.  Their subsequent action proved them untrustworthy, not up for the job.  But in the parable the only qualification which the landowner requires is that the tenant workers were available. Once they were hired the landowner gave trusted them to do what was right.  They betrayed that trust, and that is a tragedy.  But their failure is not the point we wish to emphasize today. Our focus is the action of the landowner and how his action reflects the action of God.

God calls us to build the Kingdom.  God does not call us because we are the best, but because we are available.  Having called us, God asks us to use whatever gifts we have and to be trustworthy.  We can easily say to ourselves, “I am not the best father or mother,” but we have still been called to that service.  God still expects us to be as good of a father or mother that we are able to be.  We can say that other people have more patience, more wisdom than we do.  God, nevertheless, asks us to use the patience and the wisdom that we have.  It is always easy to point to someone else who is more qualified, better suited, to do the tasks that we have been called to do.  But pointing to another does not excuse us.  We are called not because we are the best, but because God needs someone to build the kingdom.

After communion today, Julieta from Women & Community will address us about our partnership with Women & Community in El Salvador.  She will be speaking to us and asking for our prayerful and financial support.  Her presence here today is an invitation to each one of us.  We can, as always, say that someone else is more holy and better qualified to pray, that someone else is more wealthy and more qualified to give.  But we are asked today to use the gifts that we have in order to build the Kingdom of God.

The tenants in the parable proved themselves unworthy of the trust that was placed in them.  Each day we have an opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of the trust that God has placed in us.

Sharing the Vineyard

October 2, 2011

Matthew 21:33-43

Not all of Jesus’ parables describe the bright future Kingdom of God. Some of them describe our present world. Those are often tragic parables. We have an example of this in today’s Gospel of the Parable of the Vineyard. This parable presents to us a downward spiral of destruction and violence in which everyone is harmed.

To understand the force of that downward spiral, we have to appreciate where the parable begins. It begins in a very good place. There is a verdant and protected vineyard with a hedge around it, a winepress in it, and a tower to guard it. There is every indication that this vineyard will be profitable, that it will produce an abundant harvest for all who are associated with it:  for the owner who possess the land, built the tower, and dug the wine vat and for the workers who till the field and harvest the grapes. The parable begins in optimism and hope.

Then things go astray. The tenants decide that they are going to cut the owner out of his due produce. We are not told why they make this decision, only that they do. But their conviction about doing it is so strong that they are willing to go to any means to accomplish it. This leads to violence. They beat and kill the messengers and finally the owner’s son. Moreover, the violence of the tenants leads to corresponding violence from the owner, who kills the tenants. By the end of the parable everyone has been harmed, and the vineyard is destroyed.

Why does Jesus tell such a grim parable? He is warning us about making crucial decisions which can lead to a downward spiral. In the parable it was the decision by the tenants to cut the owner out. It was the decision by some that the goods of the vineyard did not need to be shared with everyone. Now we might call this decision greed, but we might even more appropriately call it pride. It was pride that led some in the vineyard to conclude that their life and needs were more valuable than the life and needs of others. It was pride to decide that the rights of others could be negated.

This parable can be applied on many levels in our life. Our families could be the vineyard. Families, when they work together, produce life and joy and a bright future. But if some members of the family decide that their needs, wants, and dreams are more important than those of other members of the family, then jealously and resentment emerge. The life of the family is undermined. The vineyard could be our country. Our country is blessed with bounty and resources for all of its citizens. But when some politicians decide that it is more important to be elected than to serve the common good, when economic and social structures are set up in a way that they benefit some of the people and not the others, then the bounty of our country is dissipated. The downward spiral begins. The vineyard could be our planet, a planet graced with so many resources from the hand of God. But when some people make the decision to exploit those resources rather than preserve them or when the desire for profit becomes more important than sustaining the resources that God has given us, then common resources are wasted. The promise of the earth is lost.

Now, of course, none of us can by our decision alone change the planet or our country or even our families. But this parable reminds us that we should never take that first prideful step. We should never accept the thought that our life, ideas, or agenda are more important than those of others. The parable reminds us that we all share the same vineyard. Therefore, either we will thrive together, or we will go down together. This is why we must remember our connectedness to one another and avoid the temptation of trying to cut someone out. For when we make that prideful choice, the spiral of recrimination and violence begins. And, trust me, when that happens, it’s a long way down.

The Cross in a Violent World

October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-43

We live in a violent world. And that is a tragedy, because violence tends to grow. When one person attacks another, it is likely that the person who is attacked will strike back. Soon it is one blow after another in an increasing cycle of pain and anger. In short order, the only option seems to be retaliation. Even though everyone knows that retaliation will be of benefit to no one and will only make things worse. Look at the Middle East. Its history is a continuing cycle of violence. The parties are so wounded and afraid that dialogue and compromise seem to be off the table. There are only more bombings and deaths. Look at so many families in our country, where communication and conflict resolution are replaced by verbal or physical abuse. Living in such violence becomes routine. Once violence finds a foothold in a political situation or in a family, it begets further violence. It becomes the automatic response. It becomes a way of living.

Today’s parable of the vineyard is a parable about violence. It is presenting God’s attitude toward it. God, as usual, is the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard is this world. It is a violent world in which the tenants continually beat and kill one another. What is the owner to do with this violent vineyard? He decides to send his son. Now this at first seems like a foolish idea. Why would you send your son, someone that you love, into such a dangerous place? But the choice of the owner is the real point of the parable. This parable is telling us what God has done for us. God has sent his son into our world to end the violence of the vineyard. The church has always interpreted this parable as a description of Jesus’ mission, of his death and resurrection. This parable tells us that Jesus came to end the violence of the world not by more violence but by non-violence. Not by striking back but by handing over his life. Not by compounding violence but by absorbing it.

The death of Jesus means many things. But one of the things it means is that Jesus submitted to the violence of the cross rather than increase the violence of the vineyard. God is telling us that the violence of our world will not be defeated by further violence but only by sacrifice and love. We know that Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek. We know that he commands us to love our enemies. But we can forget that his very cross is a sign for us. He who had the ultimate power to confront violence with more violence, instead chose to absorb violence in order to end it.

Now Jesus’ victory over the violence of this world is still very much in progress, and of course we are called to assist him in attaining it. We are challenged to absorb the violence around us rather than to spread it. This cannot mean that we accept abuse or remain in violent situations that harm us. But it does mean that we refuse to respond to violence with more violence. We are called to support political solutions of dialogue and forgiveness. We refuse to be violent people in our family, in our workplace, and in our relationships.

There can be times where a violent response is justified as a defense. But even in those circumstances the violence we use will beget more violence. This is why Jesus challenges us not to feed violence but to starve it. Not to respond in kind—to reject every violent word and action. We are to walk away from the monster rather than to inflame it. This is not the way of the world. But it is the way of Jesus. His very cross is a sign of his non-violent gospel. Today we are challenged to take up that cross and follow him.

Senseless Violence

October 8, 2017

Matthew 21:33-43

Senseless violence, that is what controlled the news cycle this week. A gunman in Las Vegas kills 58 people and wounds 489 others, and even after a week of intensive inquiry no one can explain why he did it. Senseless violence, a violence that continues in our country through shootings and terrorist attacks year after year. There is also senseless violence in today’s gospel parable. So it only makes sense to ask what the parable might say to our own violent landscape.

In the parable, a landowner sends servants to obtain his produce at harvest time. But instead of doing what is right, the tenants kill his servants and eventually his son. At first it seems that the owner of the vineyard will continue the violence. Jesus asks the crowd, “What will the owner of that vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” The crowd answers, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death.” The crowd answers this way because they presume that violence will continue, that violence will beget more violence. The crucial question is: Is their presumption correct? Is this what the parable is telling us?

There’s reason to believe that it is not. Jesus does not accept their answer of the crowd. Instead he quotes to them Psalm 118, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Now this psalm is used throughout the New Testament to refer to Jesus’s death and resurrection. We read this psalm on Easter day. Jesus is the stone who the powers of this world have rejected, but through his resurrection he has become the cornerstone of a new building, the foundation of a new people. So if we see the owner of the vineyard as representing God, this parable tells us that God does not respond to violence with more violence. God responds to violence with Jesus. God does not put those who crucified Jesus to a wretched death. Instead God raises up Jesus and makes him the foundation of a new people, a people who are called to oppose violence in our world.

When we read today’s parable from this perspective it is a reminder to us that God is committed to destroying the evil of this world and God calls us to participate in bringing that evil to an end. But how are you and I supposed to bring about the end of violence in our society? I have no idea. I, like you, have been thinking all week what could be done to stop this senseless violence that keeps repeating in our midst. Maybe Congress can do something. Maybe the President can do something. Maybe social services could help. But it all seems too little. It all seems hopeless.

Our faith tells us that it is not hopeless. Our faith tells us that God is committed to bringing an end to the violence of our society and that God calls us to participate in that effort. How will God bring about the end of violence? Somehow it will involve us, but God’s ways are not clear. But what is clear is that we must not give up hope. We must not say that it is inevitable that violence continue. Because our God is committed to bring an end to violence, and our God can be trusted. We believe that one day God’s will will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Now is it difficult to believe that the cycle of senseless violence in our society can be brought to an end? It is. But it is no harder than believing that a man who was dead in a tomb for three days was raised up to new life. Our God is real. Our God did raise up Jesus from the dead. Our God is committed to bring about the elimination of evil from our world. That is why we must never give up hope. That is why we must commit ourselves to work against violence and some day participate in God’s victory.

Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom

October 4, 2020

Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-43

Today’s first reading from Isaiah and gospel passage from Matthew both describe vineyards. The purpose of a vineyard is to grow grapes in order to produce wine.  Throughout the bible, wine is seen as a sign of celebration and joy. When the biblical authors try to describe God’s kingdom, they frequently include an abundance of wine. Therefore, wine means that things are as they should be, that God’s will is being done, that there is reason to rejoice.

This leads us to the problem in today’s readings, because neither of the two vineyards produce wine. And they fail to do so because of different reasons. Isaiah’s vineyard does not produce wine because the grapes are bad. The vineyard has grown wild grapes.  Matthew’s vineyard fails to produce wine because the tenants refuse to hand over the produce for processing. So, in Isaiah’s story the problem is the grapes. In Matthew’s the problem is the tenants. These are problems of a different order. If the grapes are bad, there is nothing you can do. You can’t make wine out of wild grapes. But if the problem is the tenants, you can make wine, if the tenants agree to change.

When we experience a problem in our lives, a lack of wine, there are some things that we cannot change, but other things that we can. Our ability to follow Jesus depends on us knowing the difference. This truth is captured in the famous Serenity Prayer that is used frequently in Alcoholics Anonymous: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When there is a lack of wine, a lack of goodness, a lack of joy in ours lives, we are called to respond with serenity and courage, depending on what is possible.

If you feel an emptiness in your marriage, a growing stress, and you begin to question the long-term viability of your union, you cannot change your personality or the personality of your spouse. You cannot erase the mistakes that were made in the past. But you can find the courage to keep dialogue open, to seek counseling, and to move as much as possible towards forgiveness.

If we are worried about the civil unrest in our cities, associated with issues of racism, we cannot remove the stain of slavery from American history, nor can we bring back the lives of those who were killed in urban violence. But we can find the courage to admit how we benefit from racist structures and to approach the issue of racism seeking understanding, rather than simply venting our frustration and anger.

If we believe that things are wrong with the policies of our country concerning abortion, immigration, or the environment, we cannot ourselves change policy and law. But we can find the courage to express our convictions in honest discussions with others and exercise our responsibility to vote in the upcoming election.

When there is a lack of wine, a lack of goodness, a lack of joy, it is time to ask God for serenity, courage, and wisdom: the serenity to accept those things we cannot change, the courage to change those that we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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