Homily for August 30th 2015
Based on Matthew 21:33-42
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In today’s Gospel reading we are told about a vineyard. First it says that the master plants and establishes this vineyard, and he builds a tower above it, and a hedge around it to protect it, and a wine press within it, and he lends it out to cultivators to watch over it. Eventually the cultivators, the tenants, prove to be wicked, because the master sends his servants to collect the fruit but the tenants become violent and resist, and kill them. Then the master sends his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard but the tenants again become violent and murder the son in order to try to keep the vineyard for themselves.
Now, on a superficial level we could say: Oh this is just talking about the nation of Israel, God sent prophets to them, they were always getting into trouble it seems, but often times they wouldn’t listen to the prophets and sometimes the prophets were persecuted and even killed. Eventually Jesus Christ was sent to them, the foretold messiah, he arrived but the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, who are represented by these wicked tenants, they had Jesus put to death. Certainly that interpretation seems to fit the parable well enough.
But there is in fact a better, deeper interpretation in Orthodox tradition, and more importantly it is an interpretation which is more applicable to us as Orthodox Christians today, and that is, that the vineyard represents the Holy Scriptures. When it says that the master built a hedge around it, this stands for the literal words of the scriptures, what you physically see when you read them, the outer shell, the tower up high represents the dizzying heights of theology, and the wine press down low represents the deeper meanings of the Scriptures.
God gave these Holy Scriptures to the nation of Israel, but these Scriptures had a purpose, they were supposed to be like a vineyard which produced good fruit in the right season. These good fruit represent good qualities, faith, love, loyalty, righteousness, etc. But in the hands of the nation of Israel it seems the Scriptures were not always producing good fruit, and so God sent his prophets to them to correct them and set them back upon the right path, and to help them to understand the Scriptures properly. But the religious leaders who had control of the Scriptures often rejected God’s prophets, even killing many of them. Finally God sent his Son, to take possession of the Scriptures and to teach them properly, so that fruit that could be harvested could be produced, but as we know, the teachers of Israel, the scribes the Pharisees, they rejected Jesus and had him killed.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asks them, what will the master do to these wicked tenants when he finally arrives? They reply that “He will put them to a miserable death, and will give the vineyard to others who will produce the fruit in due season.” Well of course that must be referring to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles. At that time they were given the authority to understand and to interpret the Scriptures properly and to cause the good fruit to be produced. This authority to teach the Holy Scriptures was taken away from the religious leaders of Israel because they had rejected and killed Christ, and taking away the Scriptures from them was like putting them to a miserable death.
Keep in mind though, that when Gospels, or the letters of Paul talk about Holy Scripture, specifically they are talking about the Old Testament, the Laws of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets. So what this is really saying is that the authority to teach and to interpret the Old Testament for the purpose of producing good fruit, no longer belongs to the nation of Israel. That vineyard has been taken away from them and given to the Christians.
This is important to understand because as Christians, when we read the Old Testament, it is important that we do not read it as someone who does not know Christ would read it. Sometimes we can be tempted to do that, but we have to keep in mind the event that took place on the Road to Emmaus after Christ was resurrected, it’s in Luke chapter 24, It says there that two of Christ’s disciples were walking along the road to Emmaus and Christ came to them and began to speak with them, but it says that their eyes were kept from recognizing him, and what Christ does is he teaches them is how in all the scriptures, that means in all the Laws of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, how all of them were actually about the Christ. This was a revelation from God. Up until that point nobody understood how all of the Old Testament actually pointed to Christ, but now that it has been revealed to us we see that the Old Testament is full of examples of Christ, in fact you could even say that the Old Testament is nothing but Christ, and that to teach us about Christ is it’s true purpose and true reason for existence.
For example we see Jesus in the story of Adam, when Adam falls asleep and then has his bride taken from his side, it is just as when Jesus fell asleep in death and had water and blood pour from his side, water and blood representing Baptism and the Eucharist, that water and blood formed his bride, the Church.
Jesus Christ is Abel slain by his brother Cain, Jesus is Enoch taken up to heaven, Jesus is Noah saving all creation through baptism, Jesus is Elijah bringing the dead back to life, Jesus is Moses giving the Law, and he is Moses setting the people free from the bondage of Egypt, which represents paganism. Jesus is Joshua leading the people to victory over sin and death as Joshua lead the people to victory over the Canaanites. Jesus is Sampson giving his life and pulling down the pillars of Hades. Jesus is Jonah being swallowed by the fish just as Jesus was swallowed by death and then spat out alive again after three days. And so on, and so forth.
All these stories of the Old Testament, all these accounts, all the laws and the lessons, they are about Jesus Christ, but we wouldn’t understand that if we are reading the Old Testament with the eyes of a person who doesn’t yet know Jesus. To be properly understood the Old Testament must be read with the eyes of the Christian. This is the right way to read them, because as we see in the parable today of the wicked tenants, the authority of the vineyard has been taken from the nation of Israel and given to the Church by Jesus Christ our Lord.
To him be glory, along with his unoriginate Father, and the all good and life giving Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages, Amen.