St. Matthew 21:33-42
1 Corinthians 16: 13-24
Most of us today–even in Texas– buy our food in supermarkets and rarely think about the soil from which it grows. Things were very different in biblical times, when abundant crops, milk, honey, wine, and oil were signs of God’s blessing to people who knew how dependent they were on the fruits of the earth. This is the case from the beginning of Genesis, when God planted the garden of Eden and gave Adam the responsibility to care for it. But the soil became cursed when he and Eve disobeyed; full of thorns and thistles, it would sustain them only through the hard and frustrating work that farmers have known all too well across generations.
Many times in the Bible, cultivated land is a sign of our relationship with God. For example, the prophet Isaiah spoke of God planting a vineyard. Because of the sins of the people, God said of what He had planted: “I will forsake My vineyard. It shall not be pruned or cultivated, but thorns shall sprout forth as in a barren land. I will also command the clouds not to rain on it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the man of Judah His beloved plant.” (Is. 5:6-7)
Jesus Christ used stories about planting seeds, harvesting crops, as well as other similar examples, to proclaim the good news of salvation. In today’s gospel lesson, the Lord told a parable about a landowner who had workers take care of the vineyard he had carefully planted. When the grapes were ready, he wanted the fruit and sent servants to get it. But the workers beat and killed whomever he sent. Even when the landowner sent his own son, they killed him also. These wicked servants brought destruction upon themselves, and the landowner then found new tenants who would give him his fruit in due season.
As in Genesis and Isaiah, this story is not simply about agriculture, but ultimately about our relationship with God. St. Matthew tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees knew that Christ was speaking this and other parables against them. The parable of the vineyard reminds us that religious and political leaders so often rejected and killed the prophets whom God had sent them in the Old Testament. And that is also how they responded to the Son of God, their own Messiah, refusing to accept His teachings and handing him over to the pagan Romans for death on a cross.
The Lord concludes this parable with a quotation from the Psalms about a stone, rejected by builders, that became the chief cornerstone, the most crucial part of the foundation of a building. He shifts the imagery here from a vineyard, the people of Israel, to a temple that includes all who are members of the Body of Christ. As St. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21)
Likewise, St. Peter wrote in his first epistle that Christians are “living stones…being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5) In other words, the Church is the temple of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (1 Peter 2:9) This blessed identity is shared by all who are members of Christ’s own Body, regardless of ancestry or ethnicity. There is neither Jew nor Greek in Him. By the Savior’s grace, all may become branches of His vine and communicants of His own Body and Blood. He is the Groom and we are His Bride, the Church.
Did you notice that these images for our relationship with the Lord are all as organic as a vineyard or a garden? We went from speaking of a cornerstone to envisioning a temple, which sounds like just another architectural structure. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for this Cornerstone is not a piece of rock or masonry, but our living Lord. As members of His Body, we are also living stones, not inanimate objects, because of our “one flesh” union with Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are a temple organically united to Christ, the prophets, the apostles, and all the other members of His Body, the Church. Through Him, we become full participants by grace in God’s eternal life that overcomes even the grave and Hades itself.
We are also the new workers in today’s parable who have taken over stewardship of the vineyard. Vineyards grow grapes from which wine comes. Abundant wine is a sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament, but is fulfilled in the New Testament as the Blood of Christ. As He said at the institution of the Eucharist, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My Blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins… But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matt. 26: 27-29) To share in this fruit of the vine is to participate in the fullness of God’s salvation in the heavenly banquet. It is the completion of God’s gracious and life-giving purposes for human beings ever since He first planted the garden of Eden. The Second Adam reverses the curses of the first Adam that subjected the creation itself to futility. Now He makes wheat His Body and enables grapes to become His Blood. In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, He makes us participants at the heavenly banquet that manifests the salvation of the world, the fulfillment of the entire creation for His intended purpose of bringing us into His blessed eternal life.
With this good news comes great responsibility, for we have to ask ourselves whether we are being good stewards of the vineyard of the Lord. Are we offering our fruit, which is really His fruit, to Him? We are not talking simply about grapes, but about our lives in this world, especially what we value and treasure the most, our most cherished abilities and strengths, and the habits and routines most familiar to us. To change the metaphor, are we going through each day as living stones of His temple? Are we grounding ourselves thoroughly on our one true foundation Jesus Christ and turning away from all that is not holy? Our calling is not to escape the world, but to offer our little pieces of it for the healing and fulfillment of the Kingdom. It is through making our life in this world holy that we participate already in the world to come.
If the Pharisees and Sadducees of old brought judgment upon themselves for corrupting the Old Testament law and the teachings of the prophets, then we had better be careful. For we are not accountable merely for instructions and rituals that foreshadowed the fullness of what was to come. No, we have received the fulfillment of all God’s promises as a Person with Whom we are united intimately and organically, Who dwells in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through Him, we “dare” to call God “Our Father,” as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. There is no upward limit to the holiness to which our deep personal union with Christ calls us. He planted the vineyard to begin with and is the cornerstone of our life. We must live as those in organic union with Him if we are to enter into the blessedness to which He calls us, for His life really is ours. Thanks be to God!