47 - The Parable of the Vineyard, Aug 22, 2010

I Cor 16:13-24

Matt 21:33-42

In this morning’s Gospel parable, the vineyard, of course, is the nation of Israel. To catch the full impact of this image for the Christian faithful, let’s review how the vineyard of Israel originated.

The nation of Israel begins with Isaac, the only son of Abraham and Sarah. You’ll remember that Abraham and Sarah were barren and well beyond the age of child-bearing. St Paul tells us that for this reason, they were as good as dead.[1] God visited Sarah in the spring, and by His grace, she and Abraham conceived and gave birth to Isaac the following year. In Isaac, therefore, the nation of Israel was virtually raised to life from the dead by the power of God’s grace.

So, when the Savior says that there was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard, He is referring to this miraculous origin of the nation of Israel. Israel’s very existence, from the manner of her origin, is a prophetic prefiguring of the resurrection of Christ.

A vineyard is planted as a seed in the soil of the earth. The seed is nourished by the earth and brings forth the fruit of the vine, the grape, which is made by man into many kinds of delicious wines that “gladden the heart of man.”[2] The vineyard of Israel was planted by God as the seed of Abraham in the womb of Sarah, which God made to be living and fruitful. The spirit, then, of the wine produced by the vineyard of Israel – this would be the life produced by the Law of God – was of God’s Holy Spirit. The gladness of the heart, which the wine, the Law of God, produced, was therefore the heavenly joy of God’s own divine Life.

St Paul said that Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead because of their barrenness. He tells us that we were dead because of our sins and trespasses.[3] Through holy baptism, we were united to Christ in the likeness of His death. We entered with Him into the waters of our baptism as into the tomb of His Holy Pascha and we were grafted onto the sacred vine that is Christ to become branches in the vineyard of the New Israel. Raised up in Christ from the waters of our baptism, we were raised up from out of this worldly life as from the dead, like a new vine sprouting from the earth, like Isaac coming forth from the womb of Sarah. The wind of Christ’s Holy Spirit has blown over us; the Sun of His Righteousness has shone on us, and we have been made alive in the life of God’s Holy Spirit that is not of this world. As children of the New Israel, we drink the divine wine produced from the New Vineyard of Christ’s Holy Church, whose Spirit truly makes glad the heart of man because it is the Spirit of God, the Giver of Life, the Treasury of blessings, who bestows on us His heavenly joy in the love of God.

The imagery of Israel as a vineyard planted by God shows us that Christ’s Holy Church is the fruit produced by the vineyard of Israel – because the Church is the body of Christ that was crucified and that rose from the dead in the Resurrection. The wine made from the grapes of the New Israel, the Holy Eucharist of the Church, which the Christian faithful partake of at every Divine Liturgy, is the Life of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead in His Holy Resurrection. The saints of the OT, therefore, and those Jews in the time of Christ who were diligently keeping the precepts of the Law of Moses, were eating and drinking in a spiritual way already from the fruit of that vine that would bring forth Christ as the fruit of the Virgin’s womb. They were those whose spiritual eyes were opened to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God, whom Moses and the prophets were talking about.

So why did the religious leaders of Israel not recognize Jesus or believe in Him as the Christ even in their religious righteousness? Why did they who were so zealous to protect the traditions of the Law not receive Him? For the same reason many Christians do not recognize Jesus or receive Him even though they have been baptized and chrismated and have partaken of Him in Holy Communion. What is that reason? It is given in the prophets of the OT.

Under the leadership of her kings and priests, Israel as a nation forsook God and the Spirit of His Law that gives life, and she went after other gods. She became “worldly”, “like the other nations”. She embraced the world’s values, its politics, even its religious practices and philosophies, so that God complained to His prophet, Isaiah: “This people draws near to me with their lips, but in their heart they are far from me.”[4] In their heart, that is to say, they have turned away from me and given their love over to the world. They have rejected the fruit of the Tree of Life that I would give them, and they have partaken of the fruit of the serpent’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Through our baptism we were grafted onto the vine that is Christ in the vineyard of the New Israel, the Church that is the body of Christ. We have died to the world and to its fruit, which is death. We have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Life and drunk its wine from the Cup of Life. We have received the Heavenly Spirit into our souls and bodies so that already, we are tinctured in soul and body with Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Why, then, when we leave the sacred precincts of the Church, would we go back to the mind of the world, eating and drinking its values, its entertainments, its perspectives as though that were our life?

When we embrace the ways and the mind of the world, we become worldly. We become faithless New Israelites like the faithless old Israelites. Our eyes and ears become heavy with the dark slumber of the world. They become covered over with the dust of the earth, and our souls become clothed in the shroud of a corpse that is buried beneath the earth. Then, we, too, even though we have been baptized and chrismated and have partaken of the divine nature in Holy Eucharist, we become blind and deaf like the old Israel to the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ. He “is in our midst”, but we don’t see Him. He speaks to us in the preaching and teaching of His Holy Church, but we can’t hear Him. His Holy Spirit descends on us in the invocations and epiclesis of the Church’s sacred worship, but we can’t feel His presence because our hearts are not here in the sacred mystery of Christ’s crucified and risen body, His Holy Church, but there in the fascinating glamour and glitter of the lusts of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life that is the spirit of the world.

To awaken our sleeping souls and to arise and walk into the Garden of Eden to partake of the Tree of Life is why we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church. The ascetic disciplines given us by the Church are how we go about doing as St Paul exhorts us this morning: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong, and do everything in love” – in the love of God and in love for God. In our baptism we were cut off from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and we were grafted as young saplings onto the Tree of Life that is Christ in the vineyard of the New Israel. We want to grow to become strong branches and, nourished by the Spirit of the vine that is Christ, to become like God and to bring forth from our own hearts the fruit of the Tree of Life, the fruits of the Spirit, that we can offer to the Father in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and in the love of the Holy Spirit. And so, we do not give ourselves to the empty vanities of the world. We do not want to waste our time in laziness and idleness. Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, its joy, its beauty, its light, its life, we want to redeem our time on this earth and to train our spiritual muscles as best we can to make ourselves ready to receive Christ in the fullness of His joy, his uncreated light and His immortal, divine life when He comes again in glory to judge the world. And so, in this vision and faith of the Church, we give ourselves to the reading and study of Scripture in order to re-shape our minds, our souls and our bodies in the Life of the Gospel. We observe the seasons of fasting in order to crucify ourselves to the world so that we may die to the world and live in Christ even here in this life. We strive to establish in our hearts unceasing prayer that our hearts may be enlarged to receive more and more the abundance of God’s grace. We strive to be faithful in our participation in the divine worship of the Church so that we become less and less of the world and more and more of the Spirit, more and more like God and less and less like the world. Through sincere and regular confession we cultivate in our mind and heart a spirit of repentance and the divine seed of humility, of contrition and love of our neighbor, in order to break up the hardness of our heart, to make it into good soil, moistened by tears of godly sorrow, rich in the mercies of God; for this is how we produce from our hearts the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of the vineyard of the New Israel in the Resurrection of Christ.

As Christians raised up into the uncreated Life of God’s Holy Spirit, we are called to a spiritual, heavenly task. We take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as our cross in order to grow the Seed of Christ’s Holy Spirit planted in our souls and bodies, that it may grow into a Tree of Life in the vineyard of Christ’s Holy Church and produce the fruit of an ardent love for God, which we offer to God, who then makes it to be the wine of Christ’s Heavenly Spirit that makes glad the heart of man because it raises us up in the love and the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection into the fullness of God’s own divine life; and by eating the Living Bread and drinking from the Cup of Life, we become partakers of His divine nature, communicants of His own Life eternal. Amen.

[1] Rom 4:19

[2] Ps 104:15

[3] Eph 2:1

[4] Isa 29:13