Here is the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s about a month ago, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, on Christ’s Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).
I almost didn’t have the heart to complete this reflection. After a 6-year journey with prostate cancer, my dad, Sanford, moved to hospice care in June and is near the end of his long goodbye with his wife Kathy, his family, his years of reading and thinking, and the birds that come to the feeder in his garden. A sudden death is a painful shock, but a slow death grinds us down: this loss erodes my strength, drains my hope, and isolates me from my usual gifts and comforts. My grief has more often felt crushing than illuminating. But, in praying on this gospel and writing this reflection, I re-learned a lesson that I’ve gotten over and over as a parent: it is comforting to give comfort. Seeking the soul-nourishing meaning I could uncover and share here in Christ’s parable nourished my own soul.
I re-read this week’s gospel on a sunny early morning in our neighborhood’s P-Patch: a community garden full of squash, greens, tomatoes, huckleberries, a beehive with a few last bees circling, and a sweet hanging smell of jasmine. It was easy, in that garden, to feel close to the love and labor of the prophet’s friend in Isaiah, or of the landowner in Christ’s parable: the P-Patch was busy but quiet, charged with its own inner life and eager for the care of its gardeners.
In one of my favorite books, Kathleen’s Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk, a Benedictine nun tells the author that the “enemies” spoken of in the Psalms and the parables—the unbelievers and mockers and military foes who humiliate or overpower the psalmist; the “wretched men” in today’s parable—are best understood not as external enemies to vanquish, but as aspects of ourselves we must overcome. Hearing this relieved the troubled feeling I’ve often had at the harsh, and final, punishments the psalmist asks God for. The psalmist is speaking of an inner struggle.
This reframing also gave me a clearer understanding of today’s parable. In the beauty of the morning garden, I had no problem understanding the vineyard in Christ’s parable as our magnificent creation. This world is a free gift of God, and we’re called to be grateful stewards of this gift. But I see now that Christ is also speaking to us of our inner garden. Our humanity is also a free gift. As Father Armando said last week, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having, for the duration of our lives, a human experience. How might we tend these spirits of ours if we believed this?—If we felt the incredible good fortune of receiving this magnificent inner garden to tend?
I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the “wretched men” of this parable. I’m often painfully aware of the wretched, possessive, fearful, jealous sides of my spirit: my love hesitates, my courage falters, my faith flows out under me like sand, my sense of solidarity shrivels.
I’m also wretchedly aware of all the ways I participate in what St. John Paul II called “structural sin”: how, by my silence and inaction, I too often consent to a society that pulls apart families based on immigration status; sells bombs to the world’s warlords; degrades and excludes women; robs the dignity of LGBTQ people for how they express their love, their gender, and their sexuality; riddles poor communities with opioid addiction, joblessness, and despair; and consigns young men of color to police violence and mass incarceration.
To work for justice in our relationships and in our society is to labor in the vineyard of God’s creation. But to do so is also to tend our inner vineyard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a natural thing you find beautiful: a bed of jasmine, a field of undisturbed snow, a great blue heron, a sleeping cat, a clear forest stream. Now imagine that, in God’s eyes, each of our small acts of courage, tenderness, or solidarity are that beautiful. These are the fruits and blossoms of our inner garden, and God sees them and loves them and loves us for them. To cultivate these qualities in ourselves is to lead a more beautiful life. But it is also to say thank you to the first gardener, of whose work we are the stewards.