Together with the Jews in the Vineyard of the Lord
The readings this weekend bring us face to face, once again, with notions of supersessionism, the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism and is the new Chosen People and People of God. I have written about this before (you can read “No Replacing the Jews” here), but it bears repeating: Catholic theology does not consider the Jews rejected by God.
The reading from Isaiah and the Gospel passage from Matthew today should not be read from a self-righteous standpoint, as if Christians have inherited the kingdom that was lost by the Jews. This would be the height of hypocrisy. We are all in danger of losing the kingdom if we fail to bear good fruit! The bishops at Vatican II teach us that the Church cannot “forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots” (Nostra Aetate #4, see Romans 11:17). Christians share the very same life as our Jewish brothers and sisters, a life in God’s Spirit, Ruah. The warnings we hear in the readings, then, are not past-tense. We should not read them at a distance. They accuse us now! Christians and Jews alike should heed the warning, whether from Jesus or Isaiah, that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”
Far from dividing us from our Jewish brothers and sisters, today’s readings have the power to bind us. Jews and Christians are working together in the vineyard of the Lord. We are equally required to examine our consciences to see whether we are bearing good fruit. Where we see good fruit developing, together we can contribute to its healthy harvest. Where we see disease and drought affecting our fruits, we can work together to irrigate the land, to uproot the weeds, and to prune the diseased branches. Moving away from metaphor, this means respecting one another as co-workers from whom God expects not “bloodshed” and “the outcry,” but rather “justice.”
Pope Paul VI famously taught, “If you want peace, work for justice.” This is the connection our readings make as well. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” He does not say, “Christian truth,” but “whatever is true.” He does not say “Christian honor,” but “whatever is honorable.” He does not say, “Christian excellence and anything Christian worthy of praise,” but rather, “any excellence” and “anything worthy of praise.” Moving beyond our tribal mentality in this way gets us closer to recognizing that we are all daughters and sons of one God and Father.
Working for justice rooted in this basic understanding is indeed a pathway to peace. It must be balanced with a healthy grounding in our own faith, of course. We do not believe Christ is “one way” but “The Way” (John 14:6). Faithful to Christ as Lord, though, we nonetheless recognize the Spirit at work beyond the walls of the Church. “The wind (the Spirit) blows where It wills” (John 3:8).
Ultimately, the Spirit is the source of a fruitful harvest. Anyone who knows history, human nature, and his/her own failings also knows that our work for justice and peace is bound to fail if it is not God’s work in us. Jews speak of tikkun olam, meaning “repairing the world.” Christians speak of being the Body of Christ at work in the world. In both cases—and certainly it is not limited to Christians and Jews!—the work has both a human element and a divine element. Together we recall that “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labor” (Psalm 127:1). We must be active contemplatives. The Psalmist gives voice to our prayer: “Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man whom you yourself made strong. Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.” We work with people of all faiths and of none, but we entrust the work to God who alone can build the kingdom, who alone can make the vineyard fruitful, and who alone will “give us new life” and peace.