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The Wicked Husbandmen
Matthew 21: 33-42
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Before we dive into the cool and refreshing waters of this morning’s Gospel Parable, I’d like to recall to our minds some other words that were spoken by our Saviour. We hear these words every Holy Week, as they were delivered to the Priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and to all those in spiritual authority over the Jewish people.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!...Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chicks under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23: 29-38).
These powerful and terrifying words actually explain today’s reading. Very simply put, the meaning of this parable was and is this: The Householder or Landowner is God. The tenant farmers (husbandmen) are the religious leaders of the Jewish people, appointed by God to live and teach the divinely-revealed faith as delivered to Moses, and to preserve the covenant, the bond, between God and man. The hedges around the vineyard are the God-inscribed commandments. The wine press, where the juice of the grapes flows, is the image of the Altar of Sacrifice in the Old Testament, prefiguring the death on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; the tower is the Temple in Jerusalem. The servants sent by the Landowner are the holy prophets. The Son of the Landowner is the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Standing at the head of the Jewish people, the chief priests, scribes, and elders had received the power to prepare the people to embrace and proclaim the coming Messiah, but instead they used this power only for their own gain. God sent prophets to them, but they persecuted and killed them. Thus, they turned out to be murderers of prophets and then later, murderers of apostles. Their Saviour they rejected; and leading Him out from their city, they crucified Him. Therefore, the Kingdom of God was taken away from them and given to another people, or rather, the Kingdom of God became the Church of Christ, and it was opened to all people.
It’s a chilling message, really. God took away the unique designation of “God’s Chosen People” from one particular nation, and gave it to others. He broke off the old branches of the ancient olive tree and grafted on new branches. St. Paul warns us:
“If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (Romans 11:17-21).
Did you notice how St Paul clearly says that the new branches are “grafted in among the others?” That means that the Church is not devoid of believing Jews. God forbid. The Church is the earthly heaven, to which all people of all races and all nations and all ethnic backgrounds are invited. Listen to the glorious words of the Apostle Paul:
“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” When we are born again from the sacred womb of the baptismal font, when we become part of the Family of Christ, a member of His Body, we are given new spiritual DNA. We are all one. We all have the same spiritual DNA – Christ. In the Holy Mysteries, the medicine of Immortality, we all have the same blood flowing in our veins – Christ’s.
Racism, sexism, bigotry, prejudice, anti-Semitism, anti-black, anti-white – none of these attitudes have a place in the Orthodox Church! Hatred, lawlessness, violence, divisiveness, foul speech, intolerance, discord, rage, factionalism, these are the fruits of the Evil Spirit. But the fruits of the Holy Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no Law.” (Galatians 5: 22-23).
As Orthodox Christians we are branches in the Tree of Christ. We will be known and we will be judged by the fruits we produce individually. The wicked tenant farmers in today’s Gospel were all about the fruits of selfishness at first; but that selfishness soon turned to violence and hatred; and the violence and hatred soon morphed into murder. The Prophet and King, David, says that violent people devise evil things in their hearts; then they continually stir up wars; then they sharpen their tongues as a serpent and the Poison of a viper is under their lips. That means murder! (See Psalm 139 (140): 1-4).  But the Gospel commands us to show tolerance to one another in love, humility, gentleness and patience (See Ephesians 4:2). These are the kinds of fruits that our Heavenly Landowner requires of us. These are the virtues, the attitudes, the characteristics that God expects from His people. If we desire to remain eternally grafted into the Tree of Life, we have to work the soil of our hearts with diligence, producing fruits worthy of Him. We have to tend the garden of the heart, fertilize and water; weed and protect it.
I will conclude by ending with the same words with which St John Chrysostom ended one of his homilies: “Let us then continue cultivating this fruit that we may find the fruition of joy here and may obtain the kingdom to come, by the grace and love towards mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom and with Whom be glory to the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen” (Homily I on Romans).