Today’s passage of the Holy Gospel, my dear brothers and sisters, is a parable that illustrates Christ’s own mission and the spreading of His Gospel to the nations. The language of this parable is borrowed from the beginning of the fifth chapter of the Prophet Isaiah:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
It is also the same prophet, namely Isaiah, who provides us with the key of interpreting the parable:
7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Christ takes, then, this image of the book of Isaiah, an image with whose meaning His audience would have been familiar, and expands it: the landowner who planted the vineyard is God the Father and the vineyard is Israel, His chosen people. The hedge around it is His Law and the tower is His temple. “When the harvest time approached”—that is, when the fullness of the times came—He sent his prophets which the parable calls “his servants,” but the tenants of the vineyard “seized the servants, and they beat one, killed another, stone a third.” In that gruesome line is summarized the history of Israel with its prophets, of which in the Gospel of St Luke Christ reminds us that He holds Israel responsible:
Because of this, God in his wisdom said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.” 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. (Luke, 11:49-51)
God continues to send prophets to Israel, but each is abused as the one before. “Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” (Mt. 21:37). Notice how the Son is sent “last of all” for there will be no more prophets after the Son Himself has come. And notice how the Son is clearly distinguished from the “servants”, for He is not one of them, He is not one of the prophets. Foretelling the death by which He will die, Christ relates to His audience what the tenants of the vineyard will do with Him: “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Mt. 21:38-39) They killed him “out of the vineyard” as He was crucified outside the walls of the city.
Thus, Israel is abandoned and the vineyard is given to “new tenants”—as the Lord continues, speaking now not in riddles but quite explicitly “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Mt. 21:43) The Church saw Herself as this new people, as the new Israel to which the promise of salvation had been renewed and made certain.
However, the lesson of this parable remains as a stern warning for us too: the sons and daughters of adoption. For we too might commit the same grave mistake as those tenants of the parable: that is, we might beginning to think that the vineyard is, after all, our possession; we may begin to see ourselves not as humble workers in the vineyard of the Lord but as its owners. Such a danger is closer and more real for us the clergy—bishops, priests, and deacons—who have been called to work at the vineyard of the Lord. It is the danger of forgetting that the vineyard of the Church is not our property, but His, who, in the time of the harvest, will demand of us “to bear fruit.” Such an insidious danger takes the form of ungratefulness: we are reminded again of the words that God speaks through the Prophet Isaiah: “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (5:4). Indeed, He planted it, He protected by building the wall around it, He adorned it with a watchtower and a winepress, and when all was ready, He called us to work and cultivate His spiritual grapes. Yet, He is the vine; we are the branches. If we remain in Him we will bear much fruit; for apart from Him we can do nothing” (Cf. John, 15:5).
Sometimes one hears here too, among our communities in America, people voicing a similar misconception, talking of the Church as if it was theirs, as it belonged to them, because they or their parents played some role in the edification of the building. My dear, if the Church is yours, then it is not the Lord’s, and if it is not the Lord’s then it is not the Church—what, then, are you boasting of?
My brothers and sisters, let us all of us, clergy and laity, avoid the ungratefulness of the old tenants, let us avoid the hardening of their hearts, let us instead repeat and proclaim with gratitude the last words of today’s Gospel: “the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mt. 21:42). Amen.
A Homily Preached at the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin
Somerville, MA (September 2, 2012)
By Very Rev. Archimandrite Panteleimon Manoussakis, Ph.D.
Fr.Dr.John Panteleimon Manoussakis was born in Athens, Greece, and educated in the United States (Ph.D., Boston College). He was ordained into the diaconate in 1995 and into the priesthood in 2011, receiving the distinction of an Archimandrite. He is an Edward Bennett Williams Fellow, an Assistant Professor in Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.