13th Sun. after Pentecost, Wicked Vinedressers: Matt. 21: 33-42

In today’s gospel we hear Christ telling a well-known parable to the chief priests and Elders of the Jews. Well known to the Jewish leaders because they knew their scriptures, and in Isaiah 5:1-10 we hear Isaiah tell them about God planting a vineyard with the best vine, building a tower and a winepress in the middle of it and putting a wall of protection around it. When it produces only thorn plants and not the expected grapes, God says He will tear it down, trample it and leave it with no rain in ruin. He then explains that this vineyard is the house of Israel. So when Christ tells today’s parable, there is no mistaking that He is describing the leaders of Israel, as the wicked vinedressers renting the vineyard. However He adds a significant detail to the Isaiah rendering. God sends not just his servants – who of course represent the prophets – but His very own Son whom they take outside of the Vineyard and kill. In the end, the listeners themselves pronounce the verdict, “…He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease His vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to Him the fruits in their season.”  The privileged period for the Jewish nation, when they were the only ones who were “God’s chosen people” was about to come to a crashing end when they (the Jewish leaders/ Wicked Vinedressers) killed the Son of the owner of the vineyard, crucified Him on a cross. This is prophesying the birth of the Church where, (Gal.3:27-29) “…as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

So we are most grateful and full of joy that we are now included in the eternal providence of God’s kingdom. However, what do we need to learn from this parable?

  • He is the vine – we need to stay attached to the vine. (John 15:5) “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
  • The fathers tell us the hedge set around the vineyard represents God’s protection, the law, the prophets and the angels; sent to guard us from the wild animals and things outside the vineyard, from our enemies, the devil and his evil demons. We are safe within the hedge of His protection, however like Adam and Eve and almost all others since, we seem to think we should stick our heads through this hedge of protection at times, and we end up bruised and battered but hopefully wiser rather than dead from the experience.
  • The winepress is where the fruit of the vine would be crushed beyond recognition and in the process become ready to be transformed into the miracle of wine. Ultimately the highest transformation would be being transformed into the very life blood of Christ our God. The blood of Christ is of course our very life and salvation and we are promised much crushing and trouble in this world. (John 16:33) “In this world you will have much tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
  • The tower represents the Church where we meet to worship God, and join with our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, the angels, the saints gone before us, and enter into eternity and the kingdom of God from the first “Blessed is the Kingdom.”
  • God leaving us and going into a far country represents His giving us free will, allowing us to work out our salvation, to learn to choose to always turn to Him in all things. In the far country (heaven) all things are done in the love and will of God, we need to resist our impulse to decide to go it on our own, to learn not to consume for our own selfish desires, turning away from what our loving Creator has told us will keep us connected to life.
  • Returning from this “far country” represents the end of this age and the arrival of the last judgement when all things will be put back in order “on earth as it is in heaven.”

God has provided everything needed for us to live and prosper in His vineyard, but in today’s parable, He shows that He expects us to return to Him two things: the first fruits, and respect and reverence. “Now when the vintage time drew near He sent His servants to the vinedressers that that they might receive its fruit.” and “They will respect My Son.”

Last week we heard about the rich young man living and exemplary life and having only his wealth standing as an idol between him and that which is more important than anything; the first and greatest commandment, (Matt.22:37) “…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He was offered an incredible opportunity to follow Christ and be His disciple. This was a very special case where the man’s entire wealth was required, as it was all that stood between him and completely following Christ. We do not encounter Christ making this offer to anyone other than His apostles themselves in the scriptures and see many times the opposite. Like with the Gadarene demoniac from whom Christ cast the legion of demons, that he should not follow Him physically, but stay where he was.

However, many times in scripture we are held to a much smaller requirement. In the old testament there are many passages regarding the necessity of tithing. Then and now, we are all expected to render unto God that which is God’s, and He asks that we give generously to Him, by supporting His Church and the poor and needy, who are all created in His image. Right from the beginning we are instructed that honouring God is not just some sort of spiritual exercise but as we are very much living in a material reality we need to honour him with our material blessings. In Exodus we hear (23:19) “The first of the first fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.” In Deuteronomy 26 we hear about the tithe and the double tithe. In Malachi 3:8 we hear “Will a man insult God? Yet you have insulted Me! But you say in what way have we insulted You? You kept back your tithes and offerings.” In Proverbs we are told to offer to God the first fruits of our labours (Prov: 3:9) “Honour the Lord from your righteous labours, and offer Him the firstfruits from the fruits of your righteousness.” And in case we are temped to think that this is only old testament stuff after all, Christ clearly stated (Matt. 5:20) “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” and “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay the tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”

So the reality of following Christ is that tithing is not eliminated, but really it is left behind as the spirit of being willing to give everything to Christ makes giving not a requirement but a joy.  While intentional planned giving is a wise plan in much the same way as is a regular prayer life, as otherwise it often just doesn’t happen, it is not the case anymore that once we have met our 10% tithing requirements, the rest is ours. Christ tells us the result of generous and sometimes even sacrificial giving. (Luke 6:38) “Give and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

In St. Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 8 we find the principle of equality. St. Paul is speaking to the Corinthian Church about the promise they made to support the needy saints back in Jerusalem and encouraging them to complete this plan and collect this generous offering. (2 Cor. 8:14,15) “…that now at this time your abundance should supply their lack, that their abundance may also supply your lack – that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” Obviously, Paul is showing that if you have excess you should be generous. So we find not a matter of the law insisting that we must behave by tithing but rather seeking to grow a generous spirit through being generous with our money. St. Paul also tells us, (Eph: 4:28) “Let him who stole, steal no longer, but rather let him labour, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” So we see the very purpose of working would be to have something left to give to others. St. Paul then shows us that as we learn to be generous, that God will bless us that we may have more abundance to be generous with, as all blessings come from God, not from our own efforts. (2 Cor. 9:6-8) “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound towards you, that you always having sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.” It is often said that we need four main books to grow in our life in Christ; the bible, our prayer book, our daytime scheduler, and our chequebook.

The second requirement that we see God wants from us – the current vinedressers caring for His beautiful creation here on planet earth is respect and reverence. This requires that we know our place as created creatures and how completely different God is. He is the Creator of all and completely outside of our understanding and comprehension. He is not our cosmic buddy. He is certainly our loving heavenly Father who loves us beyond anything we could ever comprehend or begin to understand, but in our culture, we have largely lost an understanding of reverence.

The very best place to begin to learn is right here in the Church as we literally encounter Christ Himself present in communion every Divine Liturgy. He is present, let us stand in fear and awe. Let me leave you with just one thought regarding this. In 2 Kings /2 Samuel (6:6,7) we hear that God struck Uzzah dead because he dared to touch the Ark of the Covenant, just trying to hold it steady. It was not his place to do so. The Ark of the covenant contained the golden pot of Manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the 10 commandment tablets. These all represented the power of God and the ark was a foreshadowing of the Theotokos who would contain in her womb what all of heaven could not contain, God Himself. If such reverence and awe was paid to the Ark which only foreshadowed the reality of the Theotokos bearing God within her, how much more reverent and filled with awe should we be when Christ Himself is among us? A good start to learning reverence is for each of us to stand, either singing or in silence in reverence when the gifts are out. Please teach your children from a very young age to do the same that they might get a head start on developing this precious quality of reverence. Christ is in our midst!