Gospel: Mt 21: 33 -42
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear father, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!
In today’s Gospel reading we have moved from the coasts of Judea where our Lord had met with that earnest but sorrowful young man and come back into the city of Jerusalem, into the Temple precincts. As with last week, our Lord is still teaching us, rather than performing miracles, this time with a further parable which seeks to illumine the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. Before we begin to unpick the meaning of our Lord’s parable with the help of our father amongst the saints, St Nikolai Velimirovic, it is important that we recognize its context. Our Lord is visiting the Temple on what would be His final time in Jerusalem where in only a few days He would be mocked, scourged and crucified by the ungrateful and unworthy creatures He had come to save. As with last week, throughout the final days of His earthly life, at every step of His way along the Via Dolorossa (Way of Sorrows), He is followed by the Pharisees, Scribes and Saducees who at every turn continue to use every opportunity to test, tempt and trick Him. And it was against this backdrop that our Lord posed the following parable.
‘A certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country’
Let’s first identify the central features of the parable: according to St Nikolai’s homily, the householder is the Lord. The vineyard is an ancient and established metaphor for the Israelite people and was a well-recognized metaphor for the Jewish people. The hedge that is built around the vineyard, in St Nikolai’s words ‘signifies the laws that God gave to the Chosen People, thereby setting them apart from other nations’. The winepress represents the promise of – and faith in – the Messiah. The Tower represents the ancient Temple, the precursor of the Church. The husbandmen represents the elders of the people.
In terms of our Lord’s reference to the householder going, ‘into a far country’ this poetic phrase actually refers to something very deep, namely that God has given real moral space to His creation to act in freedom outside His direct Will and Presence. It also, as St Nikolai adds, refers to ‘God’s patience with men’s sins and their mindless working against their own salvation – God’s patience and longsuffering, that is beyond man’s comprehension’.
‘And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen that they might receive the fruits of it’
So, God creates and provides everything that the husbandmen, His creation and chosen people might need, and withdraws to give them space to develop and grow in perfect freedom. Then – at the appointed time, when the fruit should be ripe, he sends His servants. His servants are, of course, the prophets, the ones inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The fruits should be the good works performed by the people of Israel. After all He had done for them, you would have thought and expected that the husbandmen should have greeted the servants with the same respect and honour they should have paid the Householder himself.
And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.
As we have seen again and again, despite all that God has given us and provided for us, when He withdraws to allow us the full freedom to choose or reject Him, there is something so sadly fallen, all too sadly human, about our tendency not simply to turn from Him but to reject Him and deny Him with such rigour and violence.
As St Nikolai says –
‘see the black ingratitude of men! The prophets reminded the elders of God’s Law, God Will and God’s benevolence … They sought, in God’s name, good works as fruit of the divine Law. But they did not find these good works, and they were left as workers who went into the vineyard to pick the grapes, and found none to pick. Not only did the elders of the people send them away empty-handed, but they seized them, ridiculed them, mocked them, beat one, killed another and stoned a third’.
If you think that this is parabolic hyperbole, then one only should look at what happened to so many of the Prophets, how Israel beat the Prophet Micah, killed Zacharias before the Altar, stoned Jeremiah and sawed Isaiah in half. Note also that the response of the people of Israel to God’s servants, the prophets, becomes progressively more violent and perverse. As St Nikolai observes, ‘The further God’s patience was extended, the greater and more repulsive was the people’s ingratitude’ .
Yet, what does God, the Divine, Good, Householder do:
Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.
Despite the violent disrespect of the husbandmen it is quite remarkable that after treating his servants, as His representatives, so abysmally, that God the Good householder gives more time to His creatures to come to their senses and to change their attitude by sending yet more servants to them. Look and marvel at the infinitude of God’s patience, His long-suffering and compassion towards us. As St Nikolai says –
In such a situation, man’s patience would have completely run out. But God’s patience is greater than that of the most patient doctor who works to heal the insane.
Not only does God’s patience not run out, but at the very moment that you would expect Him to not send any more of His servants, He makes an even more generous, even more magnanimous Gift – He sends His own Son.
But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son.
This last verse needs some further explanation. It is obvious that God the omniscient Householder would know exactly what would happen to His Son. Why then does our Lord present God the Father as saying – ‘they will reverence my son’. As St Nikolai says, the Householder says this in order, ‘to shame us, who to this day do not receive the Son of God with due reverence and love’.
‘But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.’
How horrid, how repulsive these all so fallen, all so human words sound. Yet as we have so sadly seen, when God Himself became Incarnate and came to His own, almost immediately, the jealous, bitter and envious Elders of the People sought to kill him. The words ‘let us seize on his inheritance’ shows just how much man, created in the image of God, had been debased to the level of the demons.
And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.
See here how precisely the Lord forsees His own death. For according to all the Gospel accounts, the Lord was indeed crucified ‘outside the vineyard’, outside the old city of Jerusalem, handed over to the Gentile Romans for the most painful and humiliating of deaths, death on the cross.
When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?
St Nikolai here draws attention to a detail that is easily skipped over, namely that the Lord, Who is the son spoken of in the parable, asks the Pharisees, Scribes and Saducees – the wicked husbandmen, what will happen next. ‘What a horrifying conversation’, St Nikolai says, ‘between the One facing death and the others facing their wickedness’.
They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.
With almost prophetic insight, the Lord’s murderers pronounce judgement upon themselves and announce the transition from the Old Israel to the New Israel of God. That after the death of the son, a new vineyard will be created populated by new husbandmen. And finally the Lord draws a conclusion, linking what the wicked Pharisees themselves had deduced to Psalm 117:26-27.
Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?
The Lord as the cornerstone, rejected by the Jews would become the Head of a new building – His Church.
Dear ones, let us meditate carefully upon this parable. Let us recall and wonder at the shere mercy and longsuffering of God. Let us weep when we hear those dread words, ‘they will respect my son’ remembering how shamefully we forget, we deny and betray Christ everyday through our wicked words and deeds. Whilst it is true, that the Lord spoke this parable against the madness and wickedness of the Jews, let us also not fall into complacency. For we are the new tenants of the vineyard and our God – the Divine Householder – expects from all of us spiritual fruit. We should understand that all of us – even us who claim to follow Christ – can become as blind as the Pharisees, all of us can have hearts as hard as the Scribes. We too can all fail to honour the real workers of Christ’s vineyard and can judge, defame and persecute the righteous, we need only think of the hierarchs and priests who attempted to sue our Vladyka St John in a secular court or the jealous clergy of the Patriarchate of Alexandria who persecuted St Nektarios. On this Afterfeast of our Lady’s Dormition, let us ask her prayers that as at the Wedding in Cana, through her intercessions to her son our spiritual water will be transformed into the best wine in the vineyard of the Lord.