New Wine

"He looked for the crop, but what it yielded was wild grapes" (Isa 5:3). 

The papacy of Pope Francis is summarized in his apostolic letter, Amoris Laetitia, "The Joy of Love." His central message is that God is merciful, and the most significant application of this message will be to get the church's most conservative hierarchy and theologians to open their minds and hearts to a different approach to the pastoral care of married people and families.

Hardline opponents of the pope continue to insist that Communion, the core sign of God's love, be denied any Catholic in an irregular marriage situation. The pope is pressing for a more realistic and compassionate pastoral accompaniment for couples who are struggling in real dilemmas in a conscientious desire to go forward within the church. 

The Word of God speaks to the challenge of mercy in this weekend's powerful readings and sheds both light and grace on Pope Francis' effort to preach the Good News to millions of Catholics suffering exclusion because of traditional teachings that emphasize legal absolutism.

Jesus's parable of the vineyard invokes the lyrical song of Isaiah about the Lord's beloved vineyard -- the people of God. This vineyard has been lovingly fashioned to produce the finest grapes, and from them the finest wine, the symbol of joy. But in Isaiah's lament, Jerusalem and Judah have not produced the harvest God sought. Instead, the vineyard place in their care has produced only wild grapes -- rebellion and shame.

For Jesus, this image described the failure of the leaders of Jerusalem to provide a harvest of justice and love. Despite God's generous gifts and Jesus's own preaching of God's mercy and forgiveness, the scribes and pharisees yielded only sour grapes. The history of their failure included rejection of every messenger and prophet sent by God to ask for an accounting.  The parable foretells that even the owner's beloved son would be murdered by the tenants, who wanted only to claim the vineyard for themselves. 

This stark outcome is in fact what Matthew saw when he composed his Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. Jesus' own people had rejected his message and murdered him, like all the preceding prophets. Because of this tragic failure to read the signs of the times, God had built the beloved community on the very cornerstone they had rejected. The kingdom of God would come despite this tragedy, built on a new foundation, the crucified and risen Christ. God was doing something new, and it was marvelous to behold, Matthew declares.  

We ponder this imagery and the parable Jesus told to try and grasp the struggle today to free the church from traditions and approaches to law and pastoral practice that seem only to preserve the power of leaders who reject any attempt to apply the Gospel of mercy to those who have fallen short of the strict ideal and the most literal interpretations of the Scriptures. For them, the church must be a tribunal that punishes and excludes sinners and those wounded on the battlefields of life. Pope Francis sees the church as first a field hospital that tends to the wounded before it passes judgment. Only this kind of church will ever evangelize the world; only this kind of church will show the face of the merciful God Jesus revealed and modeled.  

What is at stake is the Vineyard of the Lord. Without a harvest of sweet grapes there will be no wine, and without the new wine there can be no joy, the joy of love.