The Fruits of the Kingdom
(Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43)
Introduction to Mass
The image of the vineyard, and the fruit it produces, dominate the readings this Sunday. Our relationship with God is compared to the way a carefully-tended plant yields good fruit. But there is of course another aspect of the symbol: images of a vine that produces sour grapes, or vineyard workers who refuse to carry out the owners wishes, are conjured up as symbols of those who close themselves off from God’s grace and fail to bear spiritual fruit.
To begin Mass we acknowledge the times when we've done things that hinder our own spiritual growth and we ask God to forgive us and draw us back to him.
As we know, the symbol of the vine and vineyards was an image that Jesus liked to use in different ways in his preaching.
The important thing about the vineyard in this particular parable - as in the poem by Isaiah in the first reading - is that unfortunately it's a vineyard that doesn't produce any fruit, or doesn't produce the right kind of fruit.
Despite all the care and the cultivation by the gardener - obviously a symbol for God's care and concern for his people - the vine produces sour grapes. Or even worse, in Jesus' example, the tenants turn against the owner.
There's a saying that people sometimes use as a way of emphasising God's compassion and kindliness: "God takes us as we are".
It's true, but it's only half-true. God does take us as we are, but he doesn't leave us as we are. Contact with God, a relationship with God, changes us. We become a different person: our attitudes, and our behaviour, change. In the more figurative and symbolic language of the Bible - we produce fruit.
When a gardener puts a lot of care into his plants they ripen and mature. When we play our part in our relationship with God, and respond to the influence of his grace, we also develop in a certain direction and mature as people. There’s a move towards greater integrity or cohesion in our own character, and there’s a move towards greater understanding and gentleness regarding the frailties and weaknesses of other people. Genuine communication with God, in time, makes us resemble God.
If we look at the passage from Isaiah we can see that the kind of fruits God particularly expects us to manifest are justice and integrity.
It was part of the whole Covenant relationship between God and the Chosen People that God expected to see firm principles of justice in practice among the Chosen People as a community, as a society, and he wanted them to show integrity and honesty as individuals.
In fact Isaiah describes those qualities not so much as expectations by God, but as the natural outcome of being faithful to God, in the Covenant. What is true on the level of our individual personal relationship with God is also true for the community or group that sincerely worships God and recognises him as the source of its moral principles: just relationships, free from exploitation and domination, are the fruits which will grow naturally in that community, as a result of its genuine contact with God.
Inevitably, however, in both the first reading and the gospel, there's also a more negative implication raised by Isaiah and by Jesus: they criticise their fellow-believers for not responding in the way that they should to God's involvement with them.
Cartainly as far as the gospel reading is concerned, this part of Matthew's gospel is near the end of Jesus' preaching ministry, and you get the impression that after all the arguments and disputes that he's had with the Pharisees and the Scribes, he has now finally given up on them. There's a tone of warning and threat in his language, typical of the style of preaching employed by the Old Testament prophets, claiming that since they're not producing the fruit that comes from knowing and loving God, God's Kingdom will be taken from them, and given to other people, who will be receptive to the values of the Kingdom, and will produce the right fruits.
Obviously this was an affront to the religious leaders of the community, with their deep conviction of having been specially chosen by God in history, and the sense of superiority over the gentiles which this gave them. But of course St. Matthew's idea in including it in his gospel wasn't just to disparage the “chief priests and the elders of the people”. St. Matthew was addressing his own community - the Christian community - and his aim in this passage was to get the new followers of Christ to ask themselves whether they were producing the fruit they were supposed to.
Being baptised, or attending church services, or engaging in various forms of church activism is in itself no more a sign of being genuinely close to God than being a member of the House of Israel, if there's no genuine openness to God, no prayer, and no effort to live the values of the gospel.
So Jesus' warning here is also aimed at us: if we don't produce fruit, God's Kingdom will be taken away from us, and given to people who - even if they don’t have an explicit belief in God - are actually doing God's will by the way they live and the values they put into practice.
Again, it's not that God has a spiteful streak, or takes pleasure in removing something from us which can only be for our benefit. What this final remark of Jesus' implies, really, is that God doesn't force himself onto people who aren't interested in him. Nobody can be coerced into having a more profound faith, or growing in holiness, or becoming a more compassionate and loving person.
The rule of God's Kingdom can only be active in a person's life if there's the effort to actually welcome it and co-operate with it. Christ knew that there were men and women who were doing that, even thought they hardly carried out any of the formal religious rules and ceremonies that the religious leaders thought were so important.
So the basic purpose of Isaiah's story and St. Matthew's account of Jesus’ parable is to make us think and to search our own conscience. What are our fruits, as believers? Are we in the situation where God has done his part, but we're only producing sour grapes?
Most of us can think of ways that in our own specific circumstances we could be become more rooted in these qualities and attitudes that make up the Kingdom - even just becoming more conscious of our need to cultivate them, rather than just stagnating. Waking us up to that need, rather than threatening us with the loss of God's friendship, is the real purpose of the language Jesus and Isaiah use in their parables in today's readings.