13th Sunday after Pentecost.
Matthew 21: 33-42
Jesus tells a parable. An owner rents out a vineyard. Again and again he sends messengers to collect the rent. Finally he sends his son feeling that they will respect him. Seeing the son, the tenants decide to kill him that the inheritance might be theirs.
The interpretation of this parable is obvious. The vineyard is the Jewish nation. The householder who so carefully planted the vineyard and hedged it in and made everything ready for the time when it should bear fruit is God, who chose the Jews to be His people, protected them from their enemies, nurtured them in His truth, and trained them in His ways. The cultivators to whom the vineyard was loaned are the Jewish leaders in the succeeding generations. The series of messengers who were sent by the householder to receive a percentage of the fruit of the vineyard and who were stoned and killed are the prophets who were sent by God to Israel to speak His word, and to remind them of their destiny. The householder’s son who was sent as a last appeal to them is none other than Jesus Himself.
This parable was spoken by Jesus on Tuesday of Holy Week just before His crucifixion. It was designed to awaken the Pharisees, the scribes and the priests to the terrible sins they had committed in the past against the prophets and the great sin they were about to commit against God’s own Son.
Jesus has much to tell us in this parable about God, about man, and about Himself.
First, about God and His love. One would have expected God to put his foot down and destroy those tenants who had taken over His property and treated His servants so shamefully. Instead, He keeps making repeated attempts to win them over by sending more and more messengers. God’s love for man is truly incomprehensible! Who among men would tolerate the cruel treatment that God’s servants were subjected to? Who among men would think of sending his own son to a people who had beaten, killed and stoned others that had been sent? Yet this is exactly what God does! "They will respect my son," he says. "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have the inheritance.’ And they took him out of the vineyard, and killed him."
We shall never come to terms with this parable unless we see ourselves involved in it. How do we treat the messengers God sends us today? Certainly, we do not stone them. We’re not that cruel any more. We have other — more refined — ways of getting rid of them. We ignore them. We pay lip service to them. We call ourselves Christians and are members of the Church but the real God some of us worship is not Christ but self. We have many ways even today of rejecting God’s messengers.
"They will respect my son" said God. Is not this the chief end of man? To respect the Son of God when He comes with His claims and promises? To follow Him single-mindedly as Lord and find in Him the fulfillment of life?
The parable tells us secondly of God’s generosity. The vineyard was not a wilderness; it was already "planted" and equipped with everything that was necessary to make the work of the cultivators easy and profitable. It was fenced in by a thick-set thorn hedge to keep out wild animals and thieves. It had a wine press and a watchtower which provided lodging for the cultivators and a spot from which to watch for thieves. Is not God just as generous with us? He not only gives us a task to do; He also gives us the means to do it. He gives us the gift of life; He entrusts to our care this whole big beautiful earth; gives each one of us special talents; He endows us with a mind to create computers and spaceships and solve intricate problems. Truly who is more generous than God?
In addition to God’s love and generosity the parable tells us of God’s trust. The owner goes away and leaves the vineyard in sole possession of the cultivators. They are under no restraint whatsoever. He trusts them completely. They are to be their own bosses running the vineyard as they see fit with no one standing over them. Doesn’t God pay us the same compliment? Doesn’t He give us the freedom to run life as we choose? Truly, one of the wonderful things about God is that He allows us to do so much for ourselves. He endows us with the great gift of free will.
The parable tells us of God’s patience. The master sent messenger after messenger to the tenants "to collect his debt." Not once or twice but countless times He gave the cultivators the chance to pay the debt they owed. When the first messenger was abused, He did not treat them with vengeance. He gave them chance after chance.
How wonderful the patience of God! If God had been a man with human reactions, He would long ago have smashed this universe to bits in sheer despair at the sins and follies of men. But not God! He is patient with each one of us even in our sinning. He does not cast us off. To the very end, as with the penitent thief, He waits for us to repent and return to Him. An atheist once tried to prove that there is no God. Dramatically, he pulled his watch and said, "If there is a God, I will give Him one minute to strike me dead." The audience waited through the minute which seemed interminable. Finally, someone rose and asked, "Does the little man think he can exhaust the patience of Almighty God in one minute?"
The parable speaks of God’s judgment. God is very patient. Men might even take advantage of His patience but in the end come judgment and justice. God’s forbearance is long but in the end He acts. Having sent His Son into the world in the person of Jesus, God can do nothing more. There is no further appeal. Ultimately we are all to be judged by our response to God’s Son.
"When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." The great task which should have belonged to the Jews, said Jesus, will be taken away from them and given to the Gentiles. The Jews should have been the nation to lead all men to God. Instead they rejected God’s Son when He came; so the task of evangelizing the world would be given to the Gentiles whom they despised.
God is merciful, patient, generous, trusting, but He is also just. The cultivators thought that they could kill the son and possess the vineyard for themselves. They must have thought that the owner was too far away to act or that he was dead. Many today still feel that way about God. But He is still very much alive and in charge of things. Because of this, the day of reckoning always comes. He has placed us here in positions of trust, but one day He will return, and, when He does, He will have the right to expect something from us.
In addition to speaking to us of God’s love, trust, generosity, patience and judgment, this parable tells us of man’s sin. We see it in the stoning and killing of the prophets. We see it ultimately in the crucifixion of God’s Son. "This is the heir; let us kill him and have the inheritance." We see man’s sin also in the tenants trying to possess the vineyard. They claim for themselves what has only been lent to them. The stewards try to become the owners. They try to "play" God. They lose sight of the fact that they are tenants enjoying a vineyard they did not plant. Don’t most of us do the same? We have this "master-of-the-house" attitude especially when we’ve been a little successful in life? We assume all the credit for our success.
A teacher once said to a student, "You’re a gifted boy." The student blushed and hardly knew which way to turn. He was embarrassed and self-conscious because he felt the talents belonged to him. What the teacher meant when he used the word "gifted" was that his gifts were not his but were entrusted to him by God. How often we try to take over the vineyard and forget the owner? We receive the gifts and forget the Giver.
The Son Himself!
Finally, Jesus says something very important about Himself in this parable. Last of all, says the parable, God sent His Son to them. He had sent servant after servant, messenger after messenger. Now comes not a servant or a messenger, not another Moses or Isaiah, but the Son Himself, God in Person! The parable contains one of the clearest claims Jesus ever made of His uniqueness. He is superior to even the greatest who came before Him. They brought God’s messages; He brings God Himself. They revealed God’s plans; He opens God’s heart. They told men what God wanted; He shows them God in Person. St. Mark expressed it this way, "He had yet one, a beloved son: He sent him last unto them." The author of Hebrews says, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ..." (Hebrews 1:1-2). Here is God’s last word, God’s final invitation, God’s ultimate appeal. This is it! There is nothing more God can do. In his final days, just before His crucifixion, Jesus used this parable to make it crystal clear to the leaders of Israel exactly who He is and what His mission is.
Far from being an "absentee" landlord, who long ago created this world for Himself, then left it and forgot all about it, God is One Who is constantly present, caring, loving, patient, generous, sending messenger after messenger, ultimately even His own Son to offer us the gift of heaven.
Sermon by Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris
"Gems from the Sunday and Feasts Gospels"