Whose Vineyard is This, Anyway?

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost / Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew, September 3, 2017
I Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

If you have something truly wonderful to share with people, how do you get it to them? How do you get this wonderful thing to the people who would most benefit by it? That is the question I want to consider today as we gather to interpret the Lord’s parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21.

In this parable, Jesus tells of a vineyard, owned by a householder. This householder planted the vineyard, walled it in with a hedge, added a winepress to make the grapes into wine and included a tower. And then he leases it out to tenants to take care of it. Eventually he sends servants and finally his son to go and get the fruit of the vineyard, but the tenants beat and kill the servants and even kill the son. So when the householder returns, he will punish the tenants severely.

According to St. Theophylact of Ohrid, the immediate interpretation of the parable is this: God is the householder, and the vineyard is the Jewish people, planted in the land of promise. The hedge is the Law of Moses which set them apart, or it could also be interpreted as Israel’s guardian angels. The winepress is the altar in the temple, while the tower is the temple. The tenants are the teachers of the people, the scribes and Pharisees.

And when the householder goes away on a journey into a far country, that represents God no longer speaking directly to the people of Israel in the pillar of fire and the cloud they had with them in the Sinai wilderness. Or it may represent God’s long-suffering with evildoers, when He appears to be absent but is being patient with them.

So the servants sent to the vineyard to reap the fruit of God’s chosen people are the prophets, who are abused and killed by the religious leaders. And then the son is the Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ, Who is crucified by them.

The destruction visited upon the tenants by the householder may be understood either as God’s judgment at the Second Coming or also as the destruction sent to Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city, including the temple, in the year 70.

So this makes sense, but I would like to add another layer of interpretation here, one that brings the story into our own context, outside the issues of the Jewish world of Jesus’ time. Again, let’s ask: How do you bring something wonderful to those who can benefit most by it?

So let’s put some different characters into the story. The Lord is still the householder, but instead of the vineyard being the Old Israel, it is the New Israel, the Church. And in the Church is everything that is needed in order to bring forth the blessed cup of salvation, the Holy Eucharist, which actually includes wine made from grapes as one of its preparatory elements.

But it is not only the communion of the Eucharist that is in this vineyard of the Church, but everything that is needed for our salvation—all the sacraments, the virtues, the wisdom of the saints, the Holy Scriptures, etc. These are the many clusters of ripe grapes that are in this vineyard.

And where do we fit into the story? If we are Orthodox Christians, we can be likened to the tenants of the vineyard. We have been given the responsibility by God to take care of the Church, to cultivate its fruit, to assist in its ripening and crafting into the wine of gladness of salvation for the nations.

Those of us who are explicitly the teachers and leaders of the Church should listen closely to this, but it is not only those who are ordained or who are officially teachers who are given the task of cultivating the fruit of the vineyard. We are all ordained here into the royal priesthood. We are all given the task of taking care of this vineyard, of helping to defend the Church by building up the hedge of truth, of laboring to offer up the fruits of the Church to become the accessible cup of salvation, of teaching others about where to find this faith and how to cultivate it alongside us.

That is, our task is to take the fruit of this vineyard and make sure that it gets to the people who can benefit from it. And who is that? Who is it that should be receiving this fruit? This is not mentioned in the parable. We can assume for the moment that the householder wishes to share the wine with his family and guests. In our case, we know that God wishes to share the fruit of the Church with the whole world.

So we are faced with a choice. We can be like the wicked tenants of the parable, who prevent the fruit from getting to where it is supposed to go. They want to keep the vineyard for themselves. They do not wish to do with the fruit what the householder wants done with it. So when the servants of the householder and even his son come to them to gather up the fruits of the vineyard, they abuse them and kill them.

How many times in the history of the Church have we seen teachers and even saints abused by people in the Church? How many times have we seen the servants of the living God treated as outcasts by those to whom they were sent? The Jews abused and killed the prophets and their Lord Himself, but so-called Christians have done the same to the people whom God has sent to them.

There is even a saying I have heard: “That is a ‘priest-eating’ parish.” Well, there are also “parishioner-eating” parishes and “visitor-eating” parishes, places where those who should be cultivating the delicious fruit of the Church’s bounty instead see the place as their own. Those sent to them by God are driven away, and those who should be benefiting from the fruit are instead selfishly cut off from it.

And what destruction will be visited upon those places by God if they do not repent? We see it already in many places—such churches wither and die. And we may shudder and fear for the salvation of those who engage in such evil.

But we are called to be something different. We are called to be good tenants and not wicked ones. So how do we cultivate this fruit properly? How do we make sure it gets to the people who will benefit from it?

First, we have to realize that we are here to serve, not to be served. This is just like the Lord Jesus (Matt. 20:28), Who came for that purpose. Our job is not to eat up the fruit for ourselves, but to prepare it for others, for all those who come here.

And here is the secret of this fruit: It is good only when it is given. But it is sour or rotten when it is taken.

So how do we receive it? Aren’t we also here to receive the fruit of salvation that grows in the vineyard of the Church? Yes, we are. But we can receive it only if it is given to us by our Lord Jesus through His servants our fellow-servants in the vineyard. Here, we do not feed ourselves. We feed each other.

And when we feed those who come to this place, seeing ourselves as servants who are here to give and not to take, then we will find that the fruit is multiplied. There is plenty for all. We find that the Lord Himself feeds us, sometimes directly and sometimes through each other.

The Lord Jesus, Who is Himself the Son sent to us to gather up the fruit of the vineyard, intends to feed us with it Himself. But if we will not cultivate it and give it to Him by giving it to the people He sends to us by becoming their servants, then we cannot receive it from Him. We will seem to be eating the fruit of the Church, but we will actually be tasting only sour or rotten grapes rather than the wine of salvation. So let’s be good tenants by being the servants of all.

To the One Who plants the vineyard therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.