Pitfalls of Presumption
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: "Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, 'This is the heir, Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.'
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?" They answered him, "He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times." Jesus said to them, "Did you never read the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes'? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit."
The parable of the vineyard and the tenants effectively encapsulates salvation history. Jesus uses this parable to explain the history of the Chosen People and how they (the ancestors of the chief priests and elders) continually rejected prophets (the servants) and eventually, the Son of God (the son of the landowner).
It is ironic that the chief priests and elders of the people, to whom this parable is addressed, render a harsh judgment regarding their treatment of the prophets and Jesus Himself. It is as if they write their own condemnation by their statement regarding the way that the wicked tenants in the parable should be treated after having killed the son of the vineyard owner.
While the parable was intended for the chief priests and the elders of the Jews, the parable contains a stern warning for Christians in every generation. We should never reject those God sends to us in order to lead us to salvation. Moreover, we can never assume that just because we are the new Chosen People by grace, that we have a stranglehold on salvation. It is not enough to claim Christ in faith – our lives must reflect interior conversion and produce the fruits of God’s kingdom by our good works, good example and obedience to God’s law of love.
Presumption of salvation can be one of the most long-lasting and damaging spiritual pathologies that we can face because we can mislead ourselves to think that simply claiming one’s Catholicism without having practiced the Faith faithfully will somehow be enough to garner eternal life. This is precisely the spiritual danger that confronts those who do not practice the Faith but claim to be practicing Catholics in good standing because they come to Mass at Christmas and Easter. They “practice” the Faith on their own terms and not according to Jesus’ commands.
In a similar manner, we can mislead ourselves to think that as longs as we avoid sin, we will be saved. The parable makes it evidently clear that it is not enough to merely avoid sin. The landowner (God the father) expects us to render fruit. Rendering fruit does not come about by merely avoiding sin. Rather, it is growth in virtue that produces the fruit of God’s vineyard.
A simple analogy may help us understand this: Athletes do not train for their sport by merely avoiding injury and doing the least amount of preparation. They don’t ask, “What can I get away with?”
Instead, athletes work hard to build muscle and endurance and skill so as to win their competition. They ask, “What more can I do to get ready to win?” If this is not our attitude – if we are merely living our lives of faith based on the desire to avoid sin, without a desire to build virtue – we will soon find ourselves ill-equipped to produce the fruit that God expects of us.
We should always call to mind the first axiom of the moral life. “Do good and avoid evil.” And yet, many people spend too much time avoiding evil without giving proportionate attention to doing good. If we are committed to good works, avoiding evil becomes more achievable and, eventually, habitual.
Let us pray for the vigilance to be productive and faithful tenants, fully aware that the vineyard is on loan to us so long as we render the expected harvest. We are not owners of the vineyard – only tenants of the most merciful and just of landowners.
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