01 - The Lord's Vineyard, Sept 2, 2012

I Corinthians 16:13-24

Matthew 21:33-42

The Lord told this parable before, to the prophet Isaiah (Isa 5:1ff).  The vineyard, He told Isaiah, is the nation of Israel. But, the parable discloses a much deeper meaning in the light of the Lord’s Incarnation and Passion.

The setting of the vineyard and the drama that unfolds in the parable evokes the Garden of Eden. The wall that the Lord builds around His vineyard suggests an image of the city of Jerusalem built on Mt Zion inside a protective wall. Within the walls of Jerusalem was the Temple, and within the walls of the temple, of course, was the altar in the inmost chamber of the Holy of Holies. The fruit of the Vineyard that the Lord desired to receive from the vinedressers in its season now comes into view as the blood-offering of “young bullocks”, even the Paschal Lamb poured out on the altar of the temple. But, clearly, that blood-offering is missing something that the Lord should be receiving so that the blood-offering is fruitless as far as the Lord is concerned. What might that something be?

Now, in the Book of Jubilees, a book of the so-called “Pseudepigrapha”, where we come upon religious ideas prevalent in the period between the Old and New Testaments, we learn that the Garden of Eden and Mt Zion are linked together with Mt Sinai (where the Lord gave the Law to Israel through His servant, Moses) as the three holy places facing each other at the center, the “navel” of the earth. This would be the altar of the temple. (Jubilees 8:19) This means that Mt Zion, where Jerusalem is built, and Mt Sinai, where the Israelites receive the Law from Moses, are centered on the altar in the Holy of Holies of the temple in Jerusalem. And in the altar in the Holy of Holies, Mt Zion and Mt Sinai open onto the Garden of Eden, the Lord’s Vineyard. We now see in the Vineyard of this parable the tree of the knowledge of good and evil offering its “fruit” of disobedience and death. This would represent the fruit of idolatry. It is the fruit of death that follows from the love for false gods such as money, or the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Beside the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we see also the Tree of Life, offering its fruit of life that follows from obedience in love of the true God who creates the world and illumines it.

In the Gospel of John (chptr 15), the Lord tells us that He is the Vine, and that those who believe in Him are the branches who produce “much fruit” as they abide in Him (Jn 15:5), i.e. as they obey His commandments in their love for Him. Now, the Vineyard comes into view as the mystery of Christ Himself.

Christ is the Word of God incarnate. He became flesh and dwelt among us. He who is invisible became visible because He “clothed” Himself in a human soul, mind and body. His body – which includes His soul and mind – is the Church. Christ Himself tells us in the Gospel of St John that His body is the Temple of God. Now we understand that Mt Zion and Mt Sinai and the altar in the Holy of Holies of the OT Temple are all centered on the body of Christ; and that it is in the mystery of Christ that they all open onto the Garden of Eden: i.e., the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, when we come to the Feast for the Elevation of the Cross less than two weeks from now, we will hear that the Cross of Christ is the Tree of Life. It “carried Christ the Most High like a cluster of grapes full of life.” Through the Cross, we enjoy the immortal fruit of Eden as we glorify Christ. (Festal Menaion p. 153) – i.e. as we obey His commandments in love for Him. In the mystery of Christ, Mt Zion and Mt Sinai and the altar of the OT Temple all open onto the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. It is the Cross of Christ; and the fruit of that tree is the body and blood of Christ. But we’ve not yet come to the heart of the matter.

In his commentary on the Divine Liturgy, written in the 8th century, St Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, writes: “The Church is the temple of God, the body of Christ. She is an earthly heaven in which the supercelestial God dwells and walks about [as He did in Eden, which is to say that the Church is the Garden of Eden]. She represents the crucifixion, the burial and resurrection of Christ.” (§1) The altar, St Germanus says, “corresponds to the holy tomb of Christ. The holy table corresponds to the place in the tomb where Christ was laid.” (§§6 & 4) Now, the Gospel of John tells us that the tomb of Christ was near the place where He was crucified. In other words, it was on Golgotha, which was a hill, or a mountain, which presents Golgotha as the hidden, inner or spiritual identity of the mystery of Mt Zion and Mt Sinai, but also the Garden of Eden, for Eden was also a mountain (as the holy fathers deduced from the topography of Eden given in Gn 2:10-14). Moreover, St John tells us, the tomb of Christ was in the place where He was crucified, and that it was in a garden. (Jn 19:41) What garden? On this side of Christ’s death, with the eyes of unbelief it appears simply as an ordinary garden on the hill called Golgotha. But on the other side of Christ’s death, i.e. in the Resurrection, which one enters only as one loses one’s life for Christ’s sake and is united with Him in a death like His, the eyes of faith are opened and see it to be the Garden of Eden. Here, in the Resurrection of Christ, the Cross shines in the light of the uncreated glory of Christ’s victory over death and hell as the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of Eden – at the center, the “navel” of the earth that all the mysteries of space-time that were hidden in God from before the ages open onto. Here, in the Resurrection of Christ, the blood-offering poured out on the altar of Christ’s Holy Church is the blood of Christ Himself, full of divine life like a cluster of grapes carried on the Cross as the Tree of Life. Now, I believe, we’ve come to the heart of the parable of the Vineyard.

 As I contemplate the parable of the Lord’s Vineyard in this theological light of the Church, I see, I think quite clearly, that the fruit, which the vinedressers in the parable were to offer to the Lord of the Vineyard but would not give to Him, they offered to Him anyway. They did so when they killed the Son who came to them to receive it. For, the fruit of the Vineyard, the blood-offering of the OT Temple, which the Lord expected to receive in its season was the fruit of obedience to God as the concrete expression of love for God with all one’s heart, soul and mind and strength. That fruit of obedience and love for the Father was given by the Lord Himself when in the humility, the grace and compassion of His divine Sonship, He emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant and was obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross, pouring out for the life of the world the blood and water of His Heavenly Spirit flowing from His side on the Cross, on the altar of the Tree of Life. And so, He made even the evil to be good by His goodness. And as we, in obedience to Christ, take up our cross and lose our life in the love of Christ, and are united to Him in a death like His, so also do we enter into the spiritual reality of our heart. And there, our soul opens onto the unfathomable abyss of God’s infinite mercy, and we are healed of the death that followed from our disobedience. Our heart is transfigured into the bridal chamber of Christ’s Resurrection. We who were dead in our sins and trespasses are made alive as the blood and water of Christ’s Heavenly Spirit wash over us, and we are raised in newness of Christ’s divine life in the fire of God’s Holy Spirit that transforms our soul, our mind, our body into a flaming pillar of love for God so that we are wholly consumed with love for God in the glory of God’s own divine life.

We descend into the sacred waters of Holy Baptism and we enter the tomb of Christ, and we pass over into the Lord’s Vineyard, His Holy Church. We are protected from the darkness and evil that are in the world by the wall of the Word of Christ that encircles the Church as a wall of divine light and life, “separating” us “out” from the idolatry outside and making us “holy”, “calling” us “out” of the darkness and into the light of God’s divine life and making us members of the Church, the ekklesia, “She Who Is Called Out.” If we abide inside the protective wall of the Vineyard, i.e., if we keep Christ’s commandments, our eyes open to see the winepress. This is the cross the Lord has given us in this life to take up as the instrument of our salvation by which we can lose our life for His sake and be united to Him in His victory over death, in His Holy Resurrection. That cross can be a crippling disease, a hardship, even a sexual orientation, a weakness that tends to addiction if we are not vigilant to guard against it. Above the winepress is the tower of the vineyard. This is the mind of the Church, the doctrines of her theological vision and the instructions of her ascetic life that teach us how to train our mind in vigilance through unceasing prayer, as did the prophet Habbakkuk, to guard ourselves against the passions that would seduce us away from the path of the Gospel, and to keep vigilant watch for the coming of the Lord – not to crucify Him as did the vinedressers in the parable, but to be crucified with Him by freely choosing to take up the ascetic disciplines of Christ’s Holy Church. These ascetic disciplines are the “flowers” that blossom from the wood of His Cross (Lenten Triodion). Through these ascetic disciplines, we engage the cross the Lord has given to us in this life, and through the luminous grace of the Cross of Christ that fills those ascetic disciplines, we can transfigure the hardships, the trials and afflictions, the evils of our life into the victory of Christ’s Holy Resurrection by which we destroy death by His death and by which even the evil in our life is made to be good by His infinite goodness. For, the winepress of the cross serves to press out our arrogance, our conceit, our selfishness, our greed, until we are humbled and contrite, and the ground of our soul is made ready to receive the gift of Christ’s Holy Spirit. Thus, we become members of that “other nation” to whom the Lord gives His Vineyard. It is the Nation of His Holy Body and Blood, His Holy Church that opens onto Eden. In faith and in the love of Christ, we draw near to God and we offer Him the fruit of our love for Him with all our heart, soul, strength and mind in the eternal life of His Glorious Resurrection. Amen.