There’s a scene in “The Godfather” where an injured Michael Corleone plots the execution of the police captain who broke his jaw. Michael’s big brother Sonny—the next in line to head the family’s crime dynasty—chides this “college boy” for taking the incident so personally. Michael responds, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
Michael’s hatred for his enemies is like some people’s Old Testament love for God—stripped of passion and full of rationalizations. Love for God our Father in the B.C-era seemed very businesslike. Our relationship was called a covenant, after all. In that old covenant with God we were used to having prophets as middlemen between us and our Father. Prayer was like a contract—filled with “thee” and “thou,” rarely “you.”
Then Jesus entered the world with a passion that broke our rules.
Suddenly God the Father had a face, and our business with him became personal. Only, it was God-the-Son’s life that became the cost of our continuing to do business with the Father.
This Old Testament/New Testament dichotomy is clear in Sunday’s Mass readings. The first reading and the Gospel reading share similar plot lines, but the change in direction from Old to New dramatizes the evolution of our relationship with God from business to personal. The first reading focuses on a vineyard gone bad. The gospel’s focus is on a vineyard’s tenants gone bad.
Let’s start with Isaiah’s account of God’s feelings toward his vineyard gone bad (Is 5:1-7):
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: … The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant.
Now, look how much more personal Jesus makes this account, offered courtesy of St. Matthew (Mt 21:33-43):
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. … 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.’ … Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; … 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.”
THAT’s personal, Sonny! But Jesus saw to it that his own sacrifice paid for our bad faith and he taught us how to make good on our new covenant. And his example taught Paul, his disciple, how we should behave with God our Father from now on—as Paul told the Philippians (Phil 4:6-9):
Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
This more personal relationship with God entails putting skin in the game. As Thomas Green writes in his book Experiencing God, “thee” and “thou” is the kind of language used between master and servant, and it implies a time period of servitude that at some point ends. “You” is more New Testament and implies friendship—a relationship that should never end. But that relationship comes with mutual responsibilities that don’t end, either. Green cites the transition from thee to you as it happened in St. John’s account of the Last Supper:
“When Jesus says ‘I call you no longer servants, but friends,’ I think what he’s doing there is contrasting the two covenants, the old covenant relationship of servant and master, and the new covenant relationship of friend.”
With the state of the world as it is, with global crises dissolving cultural differences and putting all of humanity’s skin in the game of life, we can no longer afford business as usual. When God the Father tells us through His Son–
“Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends”—
that’s a proposition we can’t refuse—as many heroes proved during this week’s mass-shooting in Las Vegas.
Amen I say to you, Brother Thomas. The outpouring of selflessness made by so many in the crowd to help those in need gives us reason to hope and know that there are still enough of the “remnant” to save not only the church, but humanity.
Miracles CAN come from tragedy–even man-made tragedies. The hope such knowledge brings is a miracle in itself!