September 5, 2017 Length: 21:46
The Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers comes at an important point in the life of Christ, only days before his crucifixion. Jesus reveals the Scribes and Pharisees to be those who rejected the message of the prophets, and now they're going to kill God's Son. Fr Thomas reminds us that, in our own day, those who reject the message and the messengers by choosing the world's lies about God and humanity over the truth we receive in the Church commit the same grave error. (Matthew 21:33-44)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]
Today’s gospel reading certainly has an important historical context, and in order for us to glean important lessons and applications for us, we want to review briefly. Normally I don’t take the time to review the gospel; you just heard it. We said before the gospel, “Let us attend. Let’s pay attention.” But it’s important for us to understand what Jesus is saying here. Then we’re going to talk about the very important application for ourselves.
What’s notable about this gospel reading: Often when we have our liturgical readings, it kind of fits in the liturgical season. This one doesn’t necessarily. This is actually said by Jesus days before he goes to his death: Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday. Jesus is laying out not only exactly who he is and who the Jewish leaders are about to kill, but he also lays out, in very clear fashion, who they are. They are the wicked vine-dressers who reject the representatives of the vineyard owner. You heard in the story: vineyard owner, a landowner, sets up a beautiful vineyard. It says, “He set a hedge around it, dug a wine-press in it, built a tower.” In other words, this landowner took care to create a place where wine could be produced, where beautiful grapes could be grown from the rich and fertile soil. Those grapes could be pressed to produce delicious wine.
Then he takes that beautiful place, and he entrusts it to those who could actually produce the wine and keep growing the grapes and make sure that all of the things that have to happen in that land are happening. He goes off into a far country, and he entrusts that to others. He leases it to them, and of course, as leases go… If you’ve ever leased a car, you’re entrusted that car, and you have to make payments on it. It’s not your car; you’re simply using it, and you have to give it back in good condition to the car owner. So in this particular case, the vineyard owner has to entrust it to these people so that they can produce the wine, and they have to do that very carefully, because they know it’s not theirs.
When the time for the lease payment comes, which probably is a portion of the grapes or the profit that is made from that to give to the owner, the owner sends his representatives. They come to collect their money; they come to collect what is due to the owner. Those who were leasing beat the representatives. Another representative came; they killed him. Another representative came; they stoned him. Finally, the owner sends his son, and they kill him, too.
That’s the parable, and you have to imagine all those who were standing around Jesus, listening. You have the common people, but you also have the Jewish religious leaders, who are listening to this parable. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the obvious question: What will the owner do to those wicked vine-dressers? The religious leaders, in their hypocrisy, not understanding that Jesus was talking about them—they were the vine-dressers; they were the ones who leased the land from the vine owner; they were the ones who were entrusted with the kingdom of God by God himself—they said, “That owner will kill those wicked vine-dressers and give retribution to them in due season.”
So the historical context is very easy to understand; it’s very simple to understand. Jesus is going to his death, and he’s reminding the Jewish religious leaders that God had sent prophets and messengers for thousands of years to the Jewish people, and all they did was reject them, and not only rejected them, but the Jewish religious leaders killed them, persecuted them, stoned them, in the most terrible way. Then Jesus reminds them that when the son comes, they will kill him, too. And he was only days away from hanging on a cross.
So it’s a nice historical reading, but the obvious question is: How does that apply to us? I think the first lesson that we learn from this parable is where it says, “Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it and built a tower, and he leased it to vine-dressers and went into a far country.” The lesson for us is: God builds his Church, and it belongs to him. We might say, “Well, everybody knows that. Everybody knows it’s God’s Church.” But the question is: Do we behave in a way in which we constantly understand that it’s God’s Church, that it’s God’s revelation, that it’s God’s doctrine, that it’s God’s worship, that it’s always about God, who is revealed in Christ, through the Holy Spirit?
Everything that we do, every plan that we make, every ministry that we think about undertaking—we have to remember one thing: God established the faith. God established his Church. God created his people. And whatever we think about the existence of the Church, the beliefs of the Church, the practices of the Church, we have to remember that it’s God’s. Not only does it belong to him, but he himself created it. We didn’t take a vote to become the Church. We were called by God to be brought into his people, and the way that we think about this is we submit ourselves to it. We submit ourselves to the doctrine of God. We submit ourselves to the worship of the Church.
This often, I think especially in our day, in our land, this is very difficult for us, because we are Americans. We’re a proud people. We’re the ones who cast off authority. You can even see bumper stickers that say, “Reject authority. Crush the patriarchy.” Right? It’s ingrained in us. And the one thing that we have to remember is that, as members of the body of Christ, we are joined to it. Like something that is joined to a body, even in medical terms, whether we get a new heart or whether we get a blood transfusion or whatever it is that medical science is allowing us to do, the body, if something foreign is brought into it, it rejects it. What I feel sometime is happening is that we want—some of us—to take the ways of the world, the thinking of the world, we want to bring it in to the body of Christ to change it. There will always be a natural rejection of it. It is God’s Church.
The second point is that we have this example in the parable of this rejection of the messenger which is in fact a rejection of the message. The messengers in the parable were the representatives of the landowner. It says they came to collect what was due to the owner. They beat one, they killed one, they stoned another, and when the landowner sent his son, they killed him, too. We have to think about our own understanding [of] all of the different issues that are churning in the world today. There has never been a time in our American history where there has been more of an antithetical relationship between the teachings of the Church and the social changes that are happening in our country and in our world. I fear that one way that this message is being asserted, this antithetical message, is to kill the messenger, is to reject the message itself and say, “Well, we need a new understanding. We need a new message.”
We have colleagues—and I want to use this example, not necessarily of Church itself, but in a broader sense it does apply—in our church who have had one of their colleagues rejected by the leaders themselves for the message that he has been promoting about traditional morality, traditional relationships, traditional marriage. In other words, he’s simply been preaching and teaching the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of human relationships, the doctrine of marriage. And the leaders of this school, in a very sort of politically correct way, parted ways with this teacher. This is one way in which the message slowly begins to grate and begins to change a foreign message, and we reject the messengers and we reject the message.
As Orthodox Christians, one of our duties is not to conform to the world, is not to conform to structures of power, is not to conform and shrink back in fear when there is this tension between our understanding of God, our understanding of human beings, our understanding of marriage, our understanding of relationships—and the world’s. These times for us will take extreme courage: to be fearless, to be resolute, to be, by the way, knowledgeable, to understand what is the doctrine of God, what is the teaching of the Church, what is the understanding of human persons and God in the Church that he established, in the vineyard that he himself planted, because in our understanding, we don’t go downstairs and take a vote about our doctrines, and we don’t take a vote about what marriage is, and we don’t take a vote about what that looks like or how it changes.
I had to laugh, because sometimes I get jealous of even cults, non-Christian, pseudo-Christian religions. I was watching—God forgive me; I just got bored and watched—a video about the establishment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. At one point in the video, all the believers in this very novel and heretical doctrine got together, and they sat in a church, and they all voted. They said, “Oh, we’re going to start a church.” The same thing happened with the Mormons. They actually got together and they voted and they started the church. The Church doesn’t get started by a vote, and the teachings of the Church are not up for a vote. No amount of killing the messengers, no amount of rejecting the message will ever change that, because Christ says the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.
Now, it doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the social things that are happening, answer them with compassion, answer them with mercy, with love, with acceptance, so that they, too, can brought into the vineyard and establish themselves in the truth of Christ and the truth about God and the truth about human relationships. But this is very important: that we see not only the historical understanding of this parable, but we see how it applies to ourselves, because it can happen, and it does happen. We have saints who have been rejected by their own people. St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, when he came to the United States, he was terribly persecuted by his own Russian people. There were court cases and so forth. It was awful! Because he wanted them to be truly Christian. He wanted them to be truly Orthodox. Today we venerate him as a saint. So we are susceptible to this.
I think the final point comes from the epistle reading. How can we establish ourselves in the truth about who God is, about who people are, and not reject the messengers and not reject the message, but truly embrace the son that has come to us. In the epistle reading [St. Paul] said to the Corinthians, “Watch. Stand fast in the faith. Be brave. Be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” We’ve said it so many times: Love for God. And that means love for the Church, love for what he has planted in our midst, not just this building, not just the community, but the faith, the understanding, the doctrine, the experience, the worship. We have to stand fast in it, and when it’s being attacked, we can’t join with the crowd and say, “Kill the messenger.”
We have to be brave, we have to be strong, and we have to do everything that we do—all of the ministries that we want to do and we want to grow and we want to show that we’re flourishing—we have to do them in love: love for God, love for his Church, love for our neighbor—but it will never happen if there is this turmoil in our heart, if we’re not willing to submit ourselves to it, if we’re not willing to establish ourselves and accept the message and accept the messengers that come to us and grow and flourish in that truth and that beauty.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we live in challenging times. We live in times that will challenge the very foundation of our faith. There’s a very interesting scene in the sixth chapter of John, where our Lord Jesus Christ says those very difficult words: “He who does not eat my body and drink my blood has no life in [me].” And it says that this message was so challenging to those who had walked with Christ, those who had believed in his message when it got difficult, it said that they turned and they walked away and they were never with him again. This can happen and this has happened in our midst, where it just becomes too challenging and too difficult because we want to formulate the message in our image, in our likeness, instead of submitting ourselves to God’s message, God’s truth, what he has planted. And we can’t kill the messenger, and we can’t turn and walk away. We have to be strong, be brave, and do all things in love.
To him who is our life, with the Father and the Spirit, be glory, honor, and majesty, always, now and ever, and to ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]