HOMILY ON THE WICKED HUSBANDMEN OR THE PRACTISE OF THE REMEMBRANCE OF GOD (Matthew 21: 33-44)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Brothers and Sisters, what is it that inspires people to do horrible and wicked things? The vinedressers, or "husbandmen" as they are called in the King James Bible, had everything they could ever want. They had a beautiful place to live, they had all the food they could eat, a job that kept them busy but didn't over-burden them. They also had a kindly boss. He gave them the land to cultivate, only asking for a portion of the grapes, raisins, and wine that would result from their efforts. That's all. But when the boss sent messengers to the vineyard to receive his portion, what happened? The vinedressers killed them. They killed the first group of messengers, and they killed the second group of messengers, and finally they killed the son and heir. Now we haven't forgotten the context of this parable. Jesus is teaching in the temple. The religious leaders are furious with Jesus and question his authority. We know that the parable is addressed to them, that the vineyard, the hedge, the winepress, the tower all refer to all the good things that God had given to His people. The land, the vineyard, is the Promised Land, the hedge is the Law of Moses, the winepress is the altar of sacrifice, and the tower is the temple. We remember these things, don't we? And the vinedressers represent the religious leaders, the priests, etc. who were responsible for caring for it all. But time after time they abandoned God, worshipped idols, defrauded the poor and the widow, killed the prophets, and eventually would cause the death of their own Messiah. This is the primary teaching of the parable. It is a rebuke that is designed to get those religious leaders to wake up and see what they were doing, and see what they were thinking. In other words, Jesus sought to shake them up so that they would repent. But it was not to be so.
As a secondary meaning, many have seen a message about tithing. Right? God has given us everything, but He expects us to give our portion, our "tithe" back to Him. He has given us the Church, which is the vineyard. He has given us the Good News of the Gospel, which is the hedge. He so loved the world (which means, in Greek, the "people") that He gave His only-begotten Son to die on the Cross that we might have eternal life, which is the wine-press. And what do you think the tower is? In the Song of Songs in the Bible we hear of a person who "is like the tower of David, built for an armory, on which there hang a thousand shields, all shields of mighty men." Who might this person be, who is provided to the Church for her defense? What do we sing in the Church? "Thou art a gold-entwined tower." The Mother of God, the Most Holy Virgin is the Tower whom our Lord and Master has placed to watch over and protect the Church. So the Lord has given us everything for our salvation and eternal life. He expects us to render Him His portion, as is due. That is the connection with tithing.
But another meaning to the parable lies in what I asked at the beginning: "What is it that inspires people to do horrible and wicked things?" In our lives there can be many things that cause us to do sinful or evil things, but today's parable wants to think about one particular thing. And what is it? The parable makes a point to say that the Master "went into a far country." This means that he, the Master, was not physically present there with them, he was far away. Remember what the Lord said to Thomas, "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believe." The situation here at the vineyard was something far worse than "when the cat's away the mice will play." This is "while the Master is away we will forget about Him altogether."
St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain once said that "When a man is too happy in this world, he forgets God and forgets death.” Too much attention to the fallen world, it's pleasures, it's attractions, it's comforts, and our mind, and our focus easily disconnect from God. To the holy fathers, the forgetfulness of God is one of the worst possible sins that human beings can commit. To the late Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel laureate, Orthodox Christian author, and Russian dissident, the cause for Russia's disasters in the last century, and the disasters that loom for the West in this century are due primarily to one thing: "Men have forgotten God" (See A. Solzhenitsyn, “Godlessness: the First Step to the Gulag”). If the vinedressers had reminded themselves daily of the care and love that the Master had bestowed upon them, they would have reciprocated that love and care. But they forgot him, as we often do God. Someone once said "Most Christians live their lives and behave themselves as if God didn't exist at all." This is the deep meaning of the parable for us today. The Lord wanted to shake up the religious leaders in the temple for their repentance. He wants the parable to do the same for us! Remembering God is vital for our salvation. St. Augustine, in his work "On the Trinity," wrote about the remembrance of God. He says that before we can know and love God at all, we must first remember Him. Another holy father, St Peter of Damascus, says that we must:
"Be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things. When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you; when you see the sky, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator; when you put on your clothing, acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life. In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St. Paul commends (cf. I Thess. 5:16).”(+ St. Peter of Damascus, “Book I: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge,” The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 3)
And St Herman of Alaska famously said: “And I, a sinner, have been trying to love God for more than forty years, and cannot say that I perfectly love Him. If we love someone we always remember them and try to please them; day and night our heart is occupied with this. Is that how you...love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments? For our good, for our happiness at least let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will.'”
Let's do our best, dear ones, to struggle against the distractions of this world, the bright, colorful, flashing lights of the fishing lures of Satan, and, instead, wrestle our minds back to the remembrance of God. It isn't easy, and it must be aided by God's grace and much prayer, but we CAN do it, if we choose to.
HOMILY ON THE RICH YOUNG MAN
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
"If you want to enter into life," said Jesus to the rich young man, "keep the commandments.” The young ruler said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 'Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth up."
Jesus says to the rich young ruler, Just keep the commandments and you will inherit eternal life. Simple, right? Absolutely! But the young man wants to make sure WHICH commandments are most critical. He asks, "Which ones?" What he really wants to know is which commandments are essential, and which are not. What he really wants to know is can he ignore the "non-essential" ones and just focus on the big ones? I remember years ago seeing a copy of an Orthodox Prayer Book in English. I forget now who published it, but I do remember looking through the various prayers and seeing asterisks next to some and not next to others. "How odd," I thought, so I hunted around the book for an explanation. In the front of the book there was a little note saying that the asterisk indicates the prayers that "must be said." I saw the same thing once in a little service book for the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Asterisks. These prayers are essential, and presumably, the others may be skipped. I wondered to myself, "Who makes these decisions? Who decides which prayers are sufficient and which may be discarded? The rich young ruler wanted to know from Jesus, which commandments have the asterisks? Which commandments are sufficient and which may be discarded?
Jesus gave the answer: The basic commandments of the Law, the Ten commandments, and the additional one to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Now here's a little interesting aside. I don't know if you noticed, but when Jesus listed the Ten Commandments, He left out all the ones with reference to God. In other words He left the first part, the first 4, if you will. He left out Number 1.) "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," Number 2.) "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image," Number 3.) "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," and number 4.) "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." He only gave him the moral laws, the second part, or the second tablet. Also, remember, He only gave him the second part of the two greatest laws given by Jesus in Matthew 22: 36-40, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." He omitted the first half, the part about God. Why? St Jerome, earlier in his commentary, says "But because he had styled Him Good Master, and had not confessed Him as God, or as the Son of God, He tells him, that in comparison of God there is no holy person to be called good, of whom it is said, "Confess unto the Lord, for he is good; (Ps. 118:1) and therefore He says, "There is one good, that is, God.""
So, perhaps the Lord is pointing out, in a didactical, pedagogical way, that the rich man has a relationship with rules, but not with the Ruler of heaven and earth. He has a zeal for God, but not according to any direct knowledge of God, to paraphrase St Paul (see Romans 10:2). He has no idea that he is talking to God incarnate. He has no idea that he is speaking to the Messiah, the Saviour promised by God. He is pursuing asterisks. He has no idea that the Living God is pursuing him! So what does the rich young man do next? He says to Jesus, "I have kept these commandments; I have obeyed these commandments from the time I was a small child. What am I lacking?"
Sometimes, no, all the time, when we are trying to learn from the Scriptures, we have to look at the context of the reading. Especially, we have to look at what came just before our reading. Do you know what happened just before this rich young man approached Jesus? It'll blow your minds. Listen to what happened just prior to today's reading: "Then there were brought unto him (Jesus) little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples tried to turn them away. But Jesus said, "Allow the little children, and do not forbid them to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them, and departed from that place" (Matthew 19: 14-15). This placement is no accident. This chronology speaks volumes. Here the little children are seen flocking to Jesus and He blesses them. The rich young man boasts that even from his childhood he did everything right, he assumed that he lacked nothing. But in fact, he lacked everything! There was nothing he needed to DO, no asterisks to search out, no information to be gathered. All he needed to do was to become like one of those dear little children and run to Jesus, be embraced by Jesus, be blessed by Jesus. But, he didn't do that, did he? In fact, he walked away from Jesus, in sorrow. And why did he do that? Because Jesus showed him who he really worshiped. Jesus showed him who his "god" really was. And perhaps this, above all other reasons, was why Jesus left the "God" bits out of His list of commandments given to this rich young man. Why? Because he himself had left God out. And why had he left God out? Because his "god" was his possessions. His "god" was his wealth and his easy life. Listen to what St John Chrysostom says: "Nothing is so incongruous in a Christian, and foreign to his character, as to seek ease and rest. (For a Christian) to be engrossed with the present life is foreign to our confession and calling...To some their wealth...is a god. Are not these too idolaters?" Solomon in Proverbs says, "Those who trust in their riches will fall" (Proverbs 11:28). And St Paul, writing to Timothy, says, "Command those who are rich in this present world not... to put their hope in wealth...but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything" (1 Timothy 6:17). The rich young man walked away sad because his heart was with his treasure, rather than with God (Cf. Matthew 6:21). He missed out on the one thing needful, to sit at the feet of Jesus and cling to His every word, like Mary, the Sister of Martha and Lazarus (see Luke 10: 39-41). St. Ignatius Brianchaninov makes this observation, he says: "It is only necessary to seek one thing: to be with Jesus. The man who remains with Jesus is rich, even if he is poor with regard to material things. Whoever desires the earthly more than the heavenly loses both the earthly and the heavenly. But whoever seeks the heavenly, is Lord of the whole world." (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, Patericon). Amen.