Working in God’s Vineyard

13th SUNDAY OF MATTHEW, Matthew 21: 33-42

How many of us have a garden’ In that garden grow fruits and mostly vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, etc). We cook or can the vegetables or make lots of salads in the summer. We give some away to share our abundant crop with neighbours and friends. Probably we don’t think of our garden like a farmer does because it’s not our main source of income or livelihood. We do not depend on the crop to pay for the land. Thus, it may be difficult for us to understand Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner as told in today’s gospel reading on this the 13th Sunday of Matthew (21:33-42). Let us briefly review the parable.

First, there is the landowner who plants the vineyard and sets a hedge around it. He digs a wine press and builds a tower. He leases it to vine dressers and then goes away to a far country (v.33). When the harvest time arrived, the landowner sent his servants to receive the fruits (v.34). The vine dressers mistreated the servants by beating one, killing one and stoning another. (v.35). The landowner sends additional servants to receive his fruit and they are rejected in the same manner (v.36). Finally, he sends his son, thinking that vine dressers will respect him (v.37). However, they also killed the landowner’s son (v.39). Upon finishing the parable, Jesus asks the disciples, ‘When the landowner comes, what will he do to the vine dressers’? (v.40). The disciples replied, ‘He will destroy those wicked men and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his fruit in due season’ (v.41).

Now, let us examine what the parable meant in Jesus’ time. In other words, what lesson was Matthew the Evangelist trying to teach? Well, using other passages in Scripture and the Church Fathers, we learn that the landowner (oikodespotes lit. ‘master of the house’) is God the Father. The vineyard (ambelos) is the House of Israel (Is.5:7) and the Kingdom of God (v.43, the first verse after today’s passage). The hedge, wine press and tower are Freedom from slavery and Inheritance of the Promised Land. Notice that just like the landowner built these three things in the vineyard, God did most of the work for the Israelites in bringing them out of Egypt and into land of milk and honey. Logically, the vine dressers (georgos – lit. ‘earth workers’; farmers) are the people of Israel – the Jews. The servants are the Prophets who came to make the people accountable to God but were beaten, stoned and killed. For example, Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2Chr.24:21) was stoned and Zechariah the son of Berechiah, who was also the father of John the Baptist (Mt.23:35) was murdered and John the Baptist himself (Mt.14, Mk.6, Lk.9) was beheaded. Looking back to the prophet Isaiah, we understand that ‘fruit’ is justice and righteousness (Is.5:7). It is also the fulfilment of God’s commandments (2Chr.24:20). The landowner’s son is of course Jesus Christ who was crucified.

Understanding the meaning of the parable in Jesus’ time will help us learn what the parable is telling us today. The landowner is still God the Father. The vineyard still represents the Kingdom of God. The vine dressers however are not the Jews, but us, the Body of Christ. The servants are still the prophets of Israel but also the Church Fathers, the Bishops as Chief Shepherds, the Presbyters who minister to the flock, and most importantly the Saints who model the holiness of God to us. All of these persons come into our lives to evaluate and instruct us regarding our work habits and methods. The fruit is still justice & righteousness and the fulfilment of the God’s commandments. More specifically, that the fruits of the Spirit are the good grapes (Is.5:2). They are enumerated by St. Paul, ‘22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control.’ (Gal.5:22-23); Of course, the Son is still Jesus Christ and He comes to evaluate and instruct and to love us. Upon hearing this parable, a child once asked, ‘Why would the landowner send his son if everyone else he sent before was beaten, stoned and killed’? The answer is ‘Because of the great love God has for humankind’;  15And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place (2Chr.36:15).

As this parable is illumined for us, we must ask ourselves, ‘How do we respond to God’s messages that tell us when we’re falling short in our responsibility to bring forth fruit’? One way to evaluate that is to realize how we treat God’s messengers. Do we beat the messenger with excuses? Do we stone him/her with insults and accusations to undermine their credibility and shift focus away from ourselves? Do we seek to kill him/her with an insatiable desire to control the situation and exert power over others? Remember, the bishops, priests, teachers and saints are sent to us by God as repeated opportunities to respond to God’s message with repentance by changing our sinful ways before Christ Himself appears at the Parousia, the Second Coming, when He will render final judgment.

What happens when we continually reject God’s message as we reject His messengers? When God sends His son Jesus Christ to us, we will reject Him too. Jesus says, at that end of today’s passage, that the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone (Mt.21.42) and a couple verses later He adds, ‘whoever falls on this stone will be broken, but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder’ (v.44). Our rejection of Christ leads to our destruction. This annihilation is not wrought by God but by our own words, our own deeds and our own disposition. Christ said, ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’ (Jn.10:10). Let us lay hold of divine life in the vineyard of God’s holy church and live our life worthy of that gift! Amen!

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