September 6, 2020; Matthew 21:33-42; 1 Corinthians 16:13-24
In today’s Gospel we heard the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, or Husbandmen, or Vinedressers. They’re all the same nasty folks. The parable is addressed to the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem who are questioning Jesus as to where His authority came from (21:23). Jesus then says to them, “I’ll tell you if you tell me from whence John the Baptist got his authority.” They were caught. Why? Because they largely ignored John because they saw him as a threat to their authority. Yet the people all believed that John was a prophet. So, they refused to answer. The answer was either Heaven, meaning from God, or Earth, meaning that John was a phony, and derived his authority from his own pride. The same thing, of course, applied to Jesus: Heaven or Earth?
The parable begins with a wealthy landowner who established a vineyard on his property. This beautiful vineyard was complete with a wall around it, a winepress, and even a watchtower for protection and safety. He then became an absentee landowner, allowing tenants to be in charge of overseeing the productivity of the vineyard and paying their rent to the owner at harvest time, in the form of a share of the produce or the profits derived therefrom. Simple. But things didn’t work out simply, did they? The tenants ignored the terms of the agreement, or the covenant that they agreed to.
When the owner sent his servants to collect his share, the tenants attacked them savagely. They beat one and killed another. The owner of the vineyard, out of an over-abundance of love and mercy, (and seeking to redeem those tenants more than to get what was due Him,) sent another delegation of servants to collect the rent. And what happened?
Those servants were treated even worse than the first. We would assume by now that the owner would send in armed troops, right? Wrong, instead he sends in his first-born Son and Heir, thinking that somehow those wicked tenants might finally come to their senses. Why? Because he hoped when they saw his Son’s face, they would see in it his face, the face that was so kind to them, the face that was so generous to them, giving them the vineyard, steady employment, a good life, and the face that forgave them all of their wickedness. He hoped that those tenants would see in his Son’s face his own love, his own compassion, and his own goodness. And what was their response? They reasoned, foolishly and selfishly, that if they killed the son, they would acquire his inheritance. How? They assumed the father was never going to return. Apparently unaware of how ridiculous their notion was, and filled with demonic, greedy avarice, they killed the Son.
What happens next? Well, Jesus asks his audience (the chief priests and elders), "Now when the owner of the vineyard does return, what will he do to those tenants?" The answer is simple, and the chief priests and elders offer it themselves: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce when it is due!” (verse 41). They of course understand that He is gearing this parable toward them. They are the wicked tenants. They will plot to kill the Son. They will be the ones who at Judgment Day will reap the death that is worse than death, and the new tenants will be the Gentiles. However, there is much more to the parable than that. The same principles apply to each and every human being, and especially each and every member of the People of God. The parable speaks of betrayal, a betrayal of love. The chief priests and elders betrayed the great love and
providence of God for wicked and self-centered reasons. That’s why St. Paul in today’s Epistle reminds us,
“Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love” (1 Cor. 16: 13-14). Remember, that the first and greatest commandment according to Christ begins with loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). If we don’t have that we have no hope of salvation. That’s why Paul, further on in today’s epistle writes, “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed” (v.22). If we, the People of God, betray the love of God because of our wicked selfishness, how are we any different than those chief priests and elders who betrayed Christ? Do we think that everything we have belongs to us, that we own it? Do we resent that the church asks us for tithes and offerings in gratitude for His love for us? God help us if we do! Do we live our lives as if Christ has no influence, no say, in how we live or what we do, or how we think, or what we believe? Isn’t that the same as killing the “Son and Heir” as far as our lives are concerned? Let’s be careful, brothers and sisters, and heed the warning given in today’s Gospel and Epistle. If we do not have love for God we have and we are nothing (cf. 1 Corinthians 13: 2). But if we love Him and show it by “paying our rent” both to Him and to the poor, who are His emissaries.
I will leave off with three quotes from the Holy Fathers for your consideration. The first is from St. John (Maximovitch) of San Francisco:
“God saves His fallen creature by His own love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also necessary; without it he cannot by saved.”
St. Innocent of Moscow (and Alaska) says:
“To deny oneself means…not to desire to do anything out of self-love, but to do everything out of love for God.”
And finally, St. Herman of Alaska says,
“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.'”