In my first read of today’s scriptures and Gospel, I was led to a couple of elements that are familiar to my own life: winemaking and sons. How does that work? Our oldest child, Mark, graduated sixteen years ago and set out across the country to the Napa Valley to look for a job. He’s stayed on his career path and he’s now Assistant Group Winemaker for a big Australian company that owns about 20 brands in the US, including some very well-known ones. My wife and I go out there regularly, and we see that once-sleepy Napa is now a major tourist and second-home destination as well as a huge wine-producing area.
Wine is a big deal – as it has been since Biblical times.
Throughout our faith history, wine is not just any drink. It holds great spiritual value: just think “fruit of the vine, work of human hands”; we are “Laborers in the vineyard”. It’s no accident that grape vineyards, the raw material of wine, are prominent in our readings today.
The prophet Isaiah hammers home his condemnation of the Israelites as he points out the care that went into his friend’s vineyard, and the bitter disappointment at the poor crop of grapes. Psalm 80 is set in a vineyard that’s been laid waste. And in the parable, it is the Master’s vineyard that the tenants take over for their own gain and even ruthlessly kill his son to keep it. In all three passages, the image of the vineyard is central: In Isaiah, it’s gone bad; in the Psalm, it’s being ruined; in Matthew, it’s been hijacked. The people of those times got the frightful significance of these settings. Where to go from there? Isaiah leaves a tone of despair. However, the Psalmist pleads with the Lord of hosts to “look down from heaven and see, take care of this vine” which we find is “the son of man whom yourself made strong.” He ends, “O Lord of Hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.” And Jesus, after getting the chief priests and elders to answer that the evildoers will face a frightful fate, proclaims “have you never heard, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord this has been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.”
The evil leads to salvation.
So what does all this mean for us, today? Let me propose a perspective, inspired by the prophetic voice of our Pope. It’s rooted in the state of our physical world as well as the spiritual. Think about the vineyard itself in the Gospel: the master created it with care, and gave it so that those who tend it will make it flourish and produce good wine for ages to come. And what do the tenants do with this great gift? As Francis says, “this people saw a profitable business venture in it: the vineyard is beautiful, let’s take it, it’s ours!” Instead of being stewards of the vineyard, these tenants exploit it for their own gain. They become infatuated with their scheme, and will do anything to get away with it. To many people, climate change is a long-term, world-wide process of stewardship being cast aside for exploitation, with possible, terrible results for all humanity. The current rush to destroy the Amazon rain forest is an obvious case in point, but evidence and signs abound. But isn’t this largely a problem for the secular realm – politics, business, science, common folk?
Pope Francis wrote an encyclical in 2015: it’s called Laudato Si, in English “On Care for Our Common Home.” It’s a powerful witness – 185 pages worth – that really digs into: what are we humans doing to this precious earth that God has given us? And what does God want us to do now?
On the Sixth Day of Creation, God gave man and woman an incredible gift. He says, “fill the earth and subdue it / Have dominion…” But when does “dominion” become exploitation to the point of destruction? Are we ignoring “the cry of the earth” (in the words of St. Francis) – and “the cry of the poor”? Francis stresses that the poor are as exploited as the land is – when they are forced off their land, they are condemned as unwanted, even “illegal”. He points to rampant over-consumption as the product of an empty heart, and frequently echoes and amplifies St. John Paul’s powerful term, “throwaway culture.” I won’t try to summarize it. But I highly recommend reading it.
Even written with the authority of a Papal encyclical, Laudato Si is controversial, within the Church as well as in the world. But Pope Francis is doing, in his own way, what Saint Francis of Assisi did in the 13th century . This beloved saint’s witness is a main reason Cardinal Bergoglio was inspired to take the name Pope Francis, and to dare to write Laudato Si, which comes from his canticle “Laudato Si, mi’ signore – praise be to you, my Lord.” St. Francis had a very special love for God’s creation and the poor and outcast, as well as for all of nature. For that, he ended up disdained by elites in his time. He became of course revered, but in his lifetime he was a “stone that the builders rejected.”
I find Pope Francis’ writings both very challenging and very comforting. I feel God’s love and mercy come through in very fundamental ways. And I feel confidence that our faith and acts can lead us through this looming crisis and toward a better future for all people and all living things – closer to what God intended in the first place.
To go back to my son in Napa: every day he lives more and more with the reality of climate change. He and his wife have “ready bags” to leave their home at a moment’s notice when wildfires come. He sends dystopic pictures, and describes how unhealthy the air can be on normally crystal-clear days. His in-laws had to evacuate a couple of years ago their home of 35 years, and for ten days didn’t know if it was still standing. And there are contingency plans at his company for possible major relocations of their wine-growing and making as conditions change around the world. This is what’s happening in one idyllic place with one middle-class family.
Mark’s experience brings some of the reality of climate change home to me and led me in this direction for this reflection. I trust that all of us have some perspective on the climate situation – whether it’s bare patches on the lawn, destruction of the Amazon rain forest, pollution in nature, coal miners out of work, refugees. Responding to it is now something we as Catholics are called to do.
As the workers in God’s vineyard, if you will, we are the stewards of the Word and we are the stewards of the earth itself.
Today, I wanted to stress the related questions: how do we not be a party to those who would hijack and exploit our planet and its people? And how can we call on our faith to do our part to take proper care of our common home?