October 2, 2017

Sour Grapes: A Reflection for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Parable of the Tenants

By Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America

(Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:7-9; Matthew 21:33-43)

Since ancient times, the lands of the Middle East and the Mediterranean have cultivated vineyards. So it is not surprising that the image of the vineyard recurs in their literature. A famous instance is in one of Aesop’s Fables, which gives us the expression “sour grapes,” describing the tendency to disparage what we want but cannot have.

Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard uses the same image, but in a much different way. Translations vary: the grapes are wild, or bitter, or sour, even rotten. God expresses his disappointment with the rulers of his people, who have failed to produce the fruits of justice and right judgment.

Jesus tells his own parable of the vineyard. The problem is not with the grapes, but with the tenant farmers who refuse to give the produce to the owner, and even kill the owner’s son. Immediately after this passage Matthew notes that the Chief Priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them.

At La Salette, predicting the coming famine, Mary adds: “The grapes will rot.” This is meant literally, but may be taken symbolically, if we consider all the behaviors she describes where her people have failed to produce the fruits of faith. She does not allude to the leaders, but she does not excuse them either.

Whether from ‘sour grapes’ or other, more legitimate, causes, bitterness can settle in the soul. It can poison relationships, and is at the heart of much that goes wrong in life and in society. Our own self-centered concerns and desires can blind us to what may reasonably be expected of us as disciples of Christ. “Those who drive the carts,” Mary said, “cannot swear without throwing in my Son’s name… When you found the potatoes spoiled, you swore, throwing in my Son’s name.”

St. Paul cautions the Philippians not to give way to anxiety, but rather to direct their attention to whatever is “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious.” Often, this is easier said than done.

Perhaps this is why, almost in contrast to her challenging, prophetic message, Our Lady of La Salette has come to be known as the Beautiful Lady.

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