Saturday, October 1, 2011

What return can I make? (Reflections on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Is. 5:1-7, Matt. 21: 33-43)

"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

But the more I called Israel,

the further they went from me".

It must be tough for parents when their children don’t grow up the way they had wanted or envisioned them to.

When I was back in the Philippines a few summers ago, I met one of my former teachers who wanted to see me about her son. He and I knew each other since we were children. We went to the same school, went to the same church with our families. When I entered seminary, we lost contact with each other as his family left for the United States but returned to the country a couple of years later.

I met my old school teacher for lunch. We chatted about old times, had a couple of laughs (she was quite tough on me in class), but I could tell she was quite anxious and distraught about the reason she had for wanting to see me. I guess my old friend had left the church a few years back, and had in fact abandoned the faith altogether. He had left his wife with whom he was married for close to ten years, and is now living with a new girlfriend. She wanted me to get in touch with him and maybe talk to him if I could.

I promised to keep in touch and a few weeks after our meeting, my teacher sent me an email, a part of which read:

“We did everything we could for our children. We wanted them to have the things we didn’t have. My husband had to do a lot of overtime and things weren’t always easy. But we gladly sacrificed a lot of things for our kids. We sent them to good schools. They never lacked money for books and were always well dressed. We taught them good values and shared with them the principles by which we’ve lived and shaped our lives. We taught them to be good Catholics, and God knows we did our best to show them a good example. They say that good example rubs off on your kids. I guess it doesn’t always work”.

There must be a great deal of heartache for religious parents who see their children abandoning the faith or adopting a lifestyle that isn’t good. While they’re sad for themselves, I’m sure they must be even sadder for their children.

I guess there isn’t that much difference between the sentiments my teacher expressed in her letter and the words of God we find in the first reading. It seems that even God sometimes feels the way my good teacher did. Indeed, His words are a cry from the heart.

“What more could I have done for my vineyard that I haven’t done?” He asks.

In spite of the love he showed his people, all that God received in return was stubbornness, ingratitude, and defiance. In fact as I was reading the passage from Isaiah, I was reminded of another divine plaint – one filled with even greater pain and heartache – from the Book of Hosea. They’re such tender and sorrow-filled words, that I cannot help but be totally moved every time I read them:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

But the more I called Israel,

the further they went from me.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.

I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.
But my people are determined to turn away from me.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?

How can I hand you over, Israel?”

God, like a loving Father, a protective Master, and a caring Landowner, had treated Israel in a very privileged way. And yet it failed to make a return. Israel was God’s chosen people. They were the ones whom He had led out of slavery and guided into the promised land. They were the ones to whom the Messiah was sent. And yet when he came, they rejected and killed him.

Like a parent who had given so much time, energy and love to his or her child, God must’ve felt terribly frustrated at the return he received from a people he so loved and cared for.

And yet God isn’t disappointed for his own sake. He is disappointed because Israel squandered the blessings it was given. Israel was God’s vineyard, and it was supposed to bear much fruit.

The story of the vineyard is our own story as well. We are God’s vineyard, each one of us. And God asks us to make use of the many gifts, talents, graces, and opportunities he has given. But when we fail to respond to his love, like the Israelites, we squander his blessings and fail to make a return – a failure that hurts not simply God, but most especially ourselves.

The good news of course is that God will never write us off. He will never give up on us, unless we first give up on ourselves. Like the vineyard owner in the Gospel reading, he will send us chance after chance, hoping that we will come to our senses, realize how fortunate we have been, and make the most of the many blessings we have already been given.

And we have in fact been given much. And so let us ask ourselves today, whether we are making a return that’s worthy of what God has done for us. Today’s readings leave us with that question:

What return shall I make to my God, to my Father who has loved me with a love that has given of itself, and continues to give of itself, completely? What return can I make?

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)