Both the First Reading and the Gospel tell a story about a vineyard. In each story, the Lord of the vineyard gives good soil, choice vines, and ample protection for the vineyard. But then he does not receive the good fruit that the vineyard should have given him, either because the vineyard doesn’t produce good fruit or because the tenants won’t give the good fruit to him.
There are penalties for this failure to give fruit to the Lord. The unfruitful vineyard is left to go to ruin. The tenants who won’t give the fruit to the Lord lose their lives and their vineyard, which is given to others.
These fearful penalties are not so hard to understand. Failure to be fruitful is punished by the loss of the gifts that might have yielded fruit and by the death of the unfruitful recipients of those gifts.
But what is the fruitfulness which it is so fearful not to have?
Do we have to do the most possible good for the poor? Do we have to be highly effective at ministry? Are we supposed to work around the clock, so that we can use our gifts to the fullest? What about our jobs? Are we unfruitful if we are unemployed? How hard do we have to work in order not to count as unfruitful? How successful do we have to be at that work?
The thing to notice here is that all these questions rest on a false presupposition. The fruitfulness at issue doesn’t come from our work. In both the stories, the owner of the vineyard, who is God, plants the vines, spades the soil, removes the stones, and protects the vineyard. If the vines bear fruit, it is because it is God who worked so hard at the vineyard.
So also our fruitfulness comes not from our own work, but from the work of God’s Spirit in us. We cannot work our way into heaven!
And what about the fruit God is looking for in us? This fruit is not our awards and achievements. It is the fruit that God’s Spirit works in us. And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience and long-suffering.
God has planted himself deep within us in the indwelling Holy Spirit. No lack of success in work, no lack of work itself, can keep us from responding to him with love and joy and the rest. And these are what make us fruitful for the Lord.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University