1 Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
I sometimes hear from my students that they think that Jesus Christ was a very nice person who never said anything harsh or critical about anyone. Those who say that are certainly poor students, for the gospels make quite clear that our Lord spoke prophetic words of judgment to those who corrupted the faith of Israel in their quest for worldly power through hypocrisy and self-righteousness. As we interpret the parable in today’s gospel reading, we must recognize that its message applies not only to those of generations long past, but also to us.
Our reading from St. Matthew’s gospel follows the Savior’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. After being hailed by the crowds as the conquering Messiah Who would cast out of the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom, He told the chief priests and Pharisees that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of God before them, for they had disregarded the preaching of St. John the Baptist, even after notorious sinners had repented in response to his teaching. They were like sons who had promised to work in their father’s vineyard, but then did not keep their word.
By virtue of their knowledge, teaching, and ministry, the religious leaders of the day had a deep obligation to serve God faithfully. They had, however, become so corrupt that they were like the false prophets and wicked rulers described so often in the Old Testament. Their predecessors had worshiped foreign gods, exploited the poor and weak, and killed those who dared to criticize them or stand in their way. Christ identified His opponents in the days leading up to His crucifixion with those of previous generations who had thought nothing of murdering righteous people who truly spoke the word of the Lord. He foretold His own death at the hands of those who would not even respect the Son of God in Whom all the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. The chief priests and Pharisees knew that the Savior had told this and others parables against them, but they did not arrest Him at that time because they were afraid of the crowds of people who thought that He was a prophet.
Because they rejected Him, the Lord said in the verse immediately following this reading, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (v. 44) Here He points to the coming of the Church in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, for those with no ancestral connection to Israel are now “grafted in” as branches of the olive tree whose roots extend back to the covenant with Abraham. (Rom. 11: 17) St. Paul warned Gentile Christians not to take pride in their status in relation to Jews who had rejected the Messiah, for “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” (11: 20-21)
By faith in Christ, we have become the new tenants of the vineyard “who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Remember that that is precisely what the original tenants refused to do. Instead of tending the vineyard and offering its fruit to their rightful owner, they wanted everything for themselves and even killed the son of the owner in order to take his inheritance. We must read this passage as a reminder that embracing our membership in the Body of Christ requires offering all the blessings of life to Him. It requires a refusal to distort our faith into a way of excusing ourselves from the exacting demands of accepting our high calling as those who have inherited by grace the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham in our Savior. He is the vine and we are the branches, which means that we are organically united to Him and one another. Our entire life in the world, then, must be taken up into His great Self-Offering on the Cross for our salvation. Instead of being enslaved to getting what we want, we must die to self-centeredness as we learn to offer all the blessings of this life back to the Lord for Him to bless and multiply for the growth of His Kingdom as He sees fit.
If we do not, we will fall into the same spiritual trap as the chief priests and Pharisees who rejected the Lord and handed him over to the Romans for crucifixion. Instead of humbly accepting the great blessings of the law and the prophets, they used them to gain worldly power over other people. They corrupted them in order to condemn the sins of others, while failing even to acknowledge their own. They blinded themselves spiritually to the point that they not only failed to recognize their own Messiah, but actually wanted Him dead because He was such a threat to their desires. We will do the same thing if we attempt to identify our Lord’s Kingdom with a nation, a race, or a culture; doing so makes it inevitable that we will see those who stand in the way of our worldly agendas as God’s enemies to be hated and condemned. We will then become blind, not only to our own sins, but also to how even those the world tells us are our enemies bear the Lord’s image and likeness. We will fail to see that how we treat them as Christ’s living icons is how we treat Him.
As the Lord said in the parable, ‘“The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’” Of course, He was speaking of Himself. As St. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-22) The Hebrews of old were accountable for being faithful to what had been revealed to them. Now we, who have the fullness of the promise and share in the life of Christ by grace, are responsible to a much higher standard. We are responsible for living as those solidly grounded on the one true foundation of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whose Kingdom the racial, national, and political divisions of this world become irrelevant.
If we do not so live, however, the consequences are as clear as the prophetic word He spoke to the chief priests and Pharisees: “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” ( v. 44) If we do not share in the life of Christ, we will revert to being strangers and foreigners from the Lord’s vineyard. We will have as little life in us as branches that have fallen off the tree.
The only way to avoid such a fate is to live daily as those in communion with Christ. The fruit of the vine finds its fulfillment in the wine that becomes His Blood. We must offer all the fruits of our lives to the Savior in order to enter into the joy of His Kingdom. Such an offering requires dying to self out of love for God and neighbor in a way that destroys self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and the tendency to use religion for worldly gain of any kind. It requires being so solidly rooted in the Lord that we become living icons of His holiness and grace, especially to those we find it very hard to love and serve. Though none of us is worthy of this high calling, it remains our vocation as new tenants of the vineyard to “give Him the fruits in their seasons.” It is how we must live as those whose only foundation is the Savior Who fulfilled and extended the promises to Abraham even to people as unlikely as you and me.