Many of us have become comfortable with the place of religion in our lives. We have our routines of coming to services, praying at home, and engaging in other spiritual disciplines. We are used to thinking of ourselves as Orthodox Christians and members of this parish. Familiarity breeds contempt, however, and we must be on guard against the temptation of assuming that faithfulness to the Lord fits comfortably within our lives instead of requiring us to make the sacrifices necessary to share more fully in His life. As much as we do not like to acknowledge it, Christ’s Kingdom is not about giving us religion or anything else on our own terms. He calls us to offer Him “the fruits [of our lives] in their seasons.”
Today’s reading from St. Matthew’s gospel follows the Savior’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The crowds had welcomed Him as the conquering Messiah Who would cast out the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom, but they would soon reject Him when it became clear that His Kingdom is not of this world. 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.
Because of their great heritage in the faith of the Hebrew people, 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 many false prophets and wicked rulers described in the Old Testament who had worshiped foreign gods, exploited the poor and weak, and killed those who dared to oppose them. In the days leading up to His crucifixion, the Savior compared these conventional religious leaders with those of previous generations who had thought nothing of murdering righteous people who truly spoke the word of the Lord. In today’s parable, He foretold His own death at the hands of those who would not respect even the Son of God in Whom all the promises to Abraham are fulfilled.
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 to share in the life of Christ requires offering ourselves in union with His great Self-Offering on the Cross for the salvation of the world. Our calling is the complete opposite of the temptation to corrupt the way of Christ in order to serve our preconceived notions about the good life or help us get what we want in this world. That is simply a way of wanting to keep all the fruit for ourselves.
In the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we offer bread and wine for their and our fulfillment by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Heavenly Banquet. We then receive them as the Body and Blood of Christ for our healing and participation in the eternal life of the Kingdom. The Eucharist serves no earthly goal and must not become merely a routine religious exercise. It is truly our nourishment for the life of Heaven, our sharing in the eternal blessedness of the Holy Trinity. The Savior’s Body and Blood empower us to become like Him in holiness as we manifest His restoration of the human person in the image and likeness of God. To be in communion with Christ requires offering ourselves to Him each day and refusing to think that there are dimensions of our lives that are somehow excluded from that offering. He offered Himself fully on the Cross, to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades, in order to rise up in glory for the salvation of the entire world. If we refuse to offer the fruit of our own lives to Him, then we will eat and drink our own condemnation and reject Him even more tragically than did those who handed the Savior over to crucifixion because He did not serve their proud agendas in this world.
Later this week, we will celebrate the birth of the person who, more than anyone else, offered herself fully to the Lord. Joachim and Anna were a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, had longed for a child for many years. God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. That is where she grew up in preparation to become His living temple when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb. The misery of Adam and Eve was overcome through the joy of the Nativity of the Theotokos to Joachim and Anna.
She is the Theotokos precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God. She is the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam Who fulfills our calling to become like God in holiness and brings us back to Paradise. As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, enabling us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by sharing personally In His gracious divine energies. The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel. The New Eve said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who set us free from fear of the grave. Through her free obedience, the Savior was born.
She is the first and model Christian, the best example of what it means to offer the fruit of our lives to Him. Nothing about the Theotokos’ life fit with conventional religious expectations or served any earthly agenda. Her Son was crucified publicly as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him die on the Cross with her own eyes. As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) It was precisely through the dark night of the Cross, however, that the brilliant day of the Kingdom shown forth from His empty tomb. Our Risen Lord does not provide us with a religion that serves our self-centered desires or the interests of any nation, race, or faction, but instead calls us to unite ourselves to Him in his Great Self-Offering by taking up our crosses and sacrificing to seek first His Kingdom, which remains not of this world. His Reign comes not through the schemes of those who use religion to serve their power, prestige, and wealth, but through the humble trust of an old barren couple and the birth a little girl who somehow came to acquire the spiritual strength to say “Yes” to God with every once of her being.
Let us follow the example of the Theotokos in offering ourselves to Christ without reservation as we give Him “the fruits [of our lives] in their seasons.” That is the only way to live as those who are truly in communion with Him. Otherwise, we risk falling into the idolatry of serving only ourselves and rejecting the Savior, regardless of how religious we appear to others. That was not the path of His Holy Mother and it must not be ours if we hope to enter into the joy of His Kingdom.