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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Key to Human Flourishing

Robert Barron - The Key to Human Flourishing

Robert Barron - The Key to Human Flourishing

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading for this weekend is taken from the fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah's probably the prophet we read from the most in the Old Testament throughout the liturgical year. So, again, when you have a chance, take out your Bibles, and maybe get a good commentary, but read your way through the prophet Isaiah. He is featured prominently in many of the liturgical readings. And the image from today's reading is a classic trope within the Israelite tradition. And what I mean here is the image of the vineyard as an evocation of the people Israel. It's funny, since I came out here to southern California, I live in vineyard country because I'm in Santa Barbara, and just north of me a bit you have some of the most famous vineyards and wine tasting centers and all of that.

So as I make my way around the region, I go past vineyards all the time. So the imagery from this sings to me a little bit more, now that I'm here. What we have, Isaiah tells us, is a kind of love song between the maker of the vineyard and his vineyard. But it's a love song that emphasizes, if I might put it this way, the demand of love. Now, here's what I mean. Listen to how he lays this out. So the builder of the vineyard constructs it first on a fertile hillside. I've seen this out here in California, just the right conditions for the growing of vines. Next, he worked the land assiduously. I'm quoting now: "He spaded it, cleared it of stones". Anyone that's ever done that kind of work, even today, trying to clear stones from a field, how difficult that is, how time-consuming, how backbreaking that is.

Then we hear he planted this on choice territory, and he plants the very best vines he can find. So he spares no expense. He's not messing around. He gets the very best vines to plant on this best of grounds. Even more: within it, we're told, "he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press". What's the watchtower for? Well, to keep an eye on this precious bit of ground and make sure that it's not victimized by marauders, etc. How about the wine press? Well, that's in anticipation of a wonderful yield of grapes. Finally, we're told he built a wall around his vineyard, even further to protect it from marauders, from animals, etc. Now, here's the point of all this. The builder, the friend, has gone all out. He's done everything he can to cultivate this vineyard. He's loved it, savored it, protected it, given it every consideration, and then, finally, expected great things of it.

Well, this is the Lord God of Israel in regard to his holy people. This is the Lord vis-a-vis Israel. All of the spading, and protecting, and care, all of that is evocative of the thousand ways that the God of Israel has cultivated his people. So we're meant to think of the Scriptures, the Law, the covenants, the great patriarchs, the prophets, the temple and its rituals, all the ways that God has shared his heart with Israel, all the ways he's cultivated the life of his holy people. We're meant perhaps above all to think of the great act of liberation by which God brought Israel out of Egypt. These are all the ways that he's prepared, on this beautiful, fertile hillside, this beautiful vineyard. Okay. But then this image takes a rather dark turn.

Now, why? Despite all his efforts, we're told, the vineyard owner is frustrated. Why? Because when he comes to find his crop of grapes, he finds only, and I'm quoting here, "wild grapes", or some suggest the sense of the Hebrew is "stinking grapes". So grapes that have not come to fruition, despite all his efforts. When he comes to harvest, stinking grapes are all he finds. What's the harsh point? And this is the prophet Isaiah, but you can hear it in all the prophets, up and down the prophetic literature. God gave his whole heart to this people, but his people have not responded. Yeah, they know the Law, they were given the covenants, they have the temple, they have the benefit of the exodus from Egypt. And yet they've not responded.

Here's the spiritual of truth, I'll put this in Catholic terms, everything's grace. I mean, grace comes first, absolutely. God lavishes his love and his grace, his unmerited love upon us. But then, we are meant to cooperate with that grace. God's grace in itself is no guarantee that the harvest will be fruitful and plentiful. There's a response to grace that's needed. Now, I want to emphasize something, I've been using the word "we" to do it. Don't think for a second this story is just about ancient Israel. "These people long ago, poor things, they didn't cooperate with God". I mean, St. Paul refers to the Church as the New Israel. Look up and down our tradition. All kinds of prophetic voices have been raised in just this way: that though God has lavished his grace upon the New Israel of the Church, way too often we've not cooperated.

Think for a second, again I'm in the Catholic perspective here, the sacraments, the Mass, the Eucharist, the example of the saints, the teaching office of the pope and bishops: What do those represent but all these ways that God continues to cultivate his vineyard? This is the spade work, and the removing of the stones, and setting up of the wall, and the tower, and the wine press. These are all the ways that God has lavished his grace upon us. But, but, when he comes for the harvest, will he find good grapes or wild, stinking grapes? Well, it is a question of our cooperation with his grace. Again and again, everybody, the Gospels remind us that something is very much at stake in the spiritual life. We have no warrant to be blase about it. I'm on public record, and I've gotten some heat for it, for arguing that we may hope that all people be saved. And it's grounded in the Catechism. The Catechism says that in hope, the Church prays for the salvation of all.

So yeah, we hope for it. And that hope is based upon the mercy and grace of God. But hope is not the same as expectation. Hope is not the same as blithe confidence, not at all. Thomas Aquinas says, "We only hope for things that are difficult". Sure, I hope that all might be saved. Will all be saved? I don't know. I'm in no position to say that. What will God find when he comes to harvest my own life within the Church, which he has cultivated in all these different ways? Well, I need to cooperate with his grace. I need to respond. Now, go back to the image from Isaiah. What's the result of Israel's lack of cooperation? Listen: the Lord says, "I will…take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers".

So here's this beautifully cultivated vineyard on the fertile hillside that God has given everything to. But when he finds these wild stinking grapes, there's the result. The whole thing falls into ruin. Now, mind you, I've said this before, never read this sort of text as God falling into a snit. God is now raging like a dysfunctional father. No, no; this is spiritual physics. When we cooperate with grace, we flourish. That's the point. God lavishes us with his love, and we cooperate with that love, what happens is flourishing and fruitfulness. When we don't cooperate with that grace, we refuse it, we turn in ourselves… Augustine said sin is being "incurvatus in se". I turn in on myself, not opening myself to grace. What happens? This happens. This beautifully cultivated vineyard now falls into ruin. The wall broken down, that means anyone can get in and ravage it. This is not God being arbitrary. This is just spiritual physics. This is what happens when we don't cooperate with grace.

I've said this before too everybody: statistics, now over many years, have shown something like 70% of Catholics stay away from Mass on a regular basis. That means they're not receiving the Eucharist. It means they're not hearing the Word of God. It means they're not gathering as a community. They're staying away from the source and summit of the Christian life. Now, fully one quarter of our country claims no religion whatsoever. Among Catholics it's as bad; among younger Catholics, it's even worse than the general population. Something like 40 or 50% of young Catholics under 30 are now claiming no religion whatsoever. Well, I mean, God lavishes his love upon his vineyard: ancient Israel and the New Israel, the Church. God works, and protects, and removes the stones, and spades the earth, and buys the best vines.

But if we're staying away from Mass in droves, we're repudiating our connection to religion, we're refusing to hear the Word of God, we're staying away from the Eucharist? Remember that Pew Forum study just, what, a year ago: 70% of Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence. Well see, all of that is a sign of a lack of cooperation with grace. What happens? The thing falls into ruin. And I mean the vineyard that God's cultivating, I mean the vineyard in each one of us, our own spiritual identity. So, as I close everybody, stay with this image from the fifth chapter of Isaiah. Because it's very beautiful, it's very positive on the one hand. Beautiful how God loves and cultivates his holy people. But it's not a cheap grace. It's not a frivolous love. It's a love that demands and calls forth from us a cooperative response. When those two loves meet, the divine love and the human love meet, then we have the flourishing of this great vineyard. And God bless you.
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