Our reading at Holy Mass today from the prophet Zephaniah refers to the ‘remnant of Israel,’ a people ‘humble and lowly,’ who ‘take refuge in the name of the Lord’ and ‘do no wrong and speak no lies.’
As we know, beginning with Abraham, the Lord had established an alliance with His chosen people, according to which they could purify themselves of selfishness and worldliness and await the coming of the Messiah in peace. But the leaders of ancient Israel let themselves get distracted by other, relatively trivial things, just like pagans. So only the quiet, prayerful ‘remnant’ persevered in the alliance: Israelites who, no matter what happened, always come back to the Lord in prayer.
Lord Jesus’ little parable about the vintner with two sons draws us into the heart of the question: who exactly counts as a true Israelite? Spoken words and other exterior signs do not, in and of themselves, indicate anything. As one of the Fathers of the Church put it, in explaining this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is not in words but in deeds.”
The picture the Lord paints in the Parable of the Two Sons is exceedingly homey, utterly middle-class. The sons of big-time vineyard owners could work or not work, as it suited their whims. But the salt of the earth, small-time vintners needed the labor of their children in order to keep the operation viable.
The parable gets even more homey once the action starts. What parent hasn’t had this experience? “Dear child of mine, would you please work in my vineyard today/clean up your room this afternoon/pick up your little sister on your way home from basketball practice/[fill in any other perfectly reasonable request aimed at keeping the household going]?” only to be met with a petulant, irrational, “No! Can’t you see I’m an adolescent in a bad mood! Don’t talk to me about your chores when I am desperately trying to figure out the meaning of life by stewing in my own immature juices!”
But then: this same fleetingly difficult child actually does wind up picking up his or her little sister, because he/she figured out that honest co-operation leads to greater happiness than endless self-centered brooding does.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, little Mr. or Mrs. Perfect Goodytwoshoes says all the right things and yet remains trapped inside his or her little perfectionist narcissistic world.
Now, we Christians enjoy the great benefit of knowing precisely Who the Messiah is, what He is like, what work He willed to accomplish while on earth, and how all His teachings can help us live right. This gives us a huge advantage over even the holiest of the ancient Israelites, all of whom had to live in a state of uncertainty on these matters.
We know that humbly co-operating with Jesus Christ in the work of helping souls attain salvation—we know that this offers the greatest happiness available to us mortals in this life. So let’s get over all of our petulant little moody fits, so that we can spend the time we have on earth laboring in Christ’s good vineyard.
I promised a superior translation of Boris Pasternak’s “Mary Magdalene.” I present those parts of the poem that benefit from a better rendition in English…
As soon as night falls, my tempter is beside me
He is the debt I pay to my past
Memories of debauchery
Come and suck at my feet
Memories of myself, a salve to men’s whims,
A fool, out of my mind,
To whom the street was shelter.
A few moments remain,
Then comes the silence of the tomb.
Having reached the end of the world
I break my life before you
Like an alabaster box.
Oh, where would I be now,
My teacher and my savior,
If eternity did not await me
At the table, at night,
Like a new client
Caught in the net of my craft?
But, tell me, what is the meaning of sin,
Of death, hell, fire and brimstone,
When before the eyes of all
I have grown one with you in my boundless sorrow
As the graft grows one with the tree?
And perhaps, Jesus, holding your feet on my knees,
I am learning to embrace
The square shaft of the cross,
Losing consciousness as I strain your body to me
Preparing you for burial.
The columns of the guards will re-form
And the horsemen will ride away.
Like a windspout in a storm, the cross above my head
Will strain towards the sky.
And I will fall at its feet,
Silent and dazed, biting my lips.
Your arms will spread out to the ends of the cross
To embrace too many.
For whom in all the world
Is your embrace so wide,
For whom so much torment,
So much power?
In all the world
Are there so many souls?
So many lives?
So many villages, rivers and woods?