“The Fruits of God’s Vineyard”
A Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
The fruits of God’s vineyard
(13th Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 21:33-42)
This parable of the vineyard reminds us of other vineyard stories in the Holy Scripture. There is the famous “Vineyard Song” in the fifth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, and this song was familiar to the Jews who were listening to Jesus:
“Let me now sing of my friend, my friend‘s song concerning his vineyard.
My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside; he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press.
Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it wielded was wild grapes.
Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard;
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?
Now, I will let you know what I mean to do to my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, and let it be trampled!
Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it.
The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his cherished plant;
He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed, for justice, but hark, the outcry!” (5:1-7).
Historically, the vineyard is the symbol of the Jewish nation of the Old Covenant. God chose them as his people, and trained them in his ways, to bear fruits of justice. But instead of justice, what the vineyard produced was, “bloodshed” and “outcry”. The series of messengers who were sent by the householder are the prophets who were sent by God to Israel to speak His word, and to remind them of their destiny. But the Jews “beat one, killed another, and stoned another”. That reminds us of Jesus weeping on Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you refused! Behold, your house will be left to you desolate!” (Matthew 23:37-38).
The parable goes on: “Finally he sent his son to them, saying: they will respect my son. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other: this is the heir. Come on, let us kill him and take over his inheritance. So they seized him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”. “Out of the vineyard”, that is a reminder that Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem.
The difference between the “Vineyard Song” and the parable of the wicked husbandmen is in the finale: in the “Vineyard Song”, the finale is total ruin: “Yes, I will make it a ruin: I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it”. In the parable of Jesus, the finale is a word of hope: “He will certainly kill those evil men, and rent the vineyard out to other tenants, who will give him the fruits in their seasons”.
God had chosen the people of the Old Testament to build his Kingdom. He sent them his own Son, they killed him. Then he rented his vineyard to a new people, the Christian Church of the New Testament, of whom St. Peter says in his first Epistle: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of the darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people at all; and now you are the People of God” (2:9-10).
We, Christians, are the new people of God, and God wants us to bear the fruits of justice and holiness. The judgment of God in the Old Testament was total condemnation: “I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it.” In the New Testament, God sent us Jesus not to condemn us but to save us. But we have to come to Him. He told us: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me. Let the man come and drink, who believes in me; as scripture says: from his breast shall flow fountains of living water. He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive;” (John 7:37-38).
In another parable on the vine in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus reminds us that we cannot bear fruit if we are separated from the head:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bear no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more… Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (15:1-5).This is a clear reference to the Eucharist, the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as food and beverage for our souls.
Let us listen once more to what God said to us: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” God has given us everything: He created us in his image, and when we had fallen, he sent us in the Old Testament the prophets as his messengers, and in the New Testament his Son as Savior, and in the Church his Holy Spirit as sanctifier.
When God created humanity he had a dream for all human beings. He created us in his image to be his body on earth and to continue the work of creation. Because of our dignity, He made us stewards of the creation, “to cultivate the earth, to accomplish it”, to fill it with His Holy Spirit. No angel reflects God, only human being do. The angels say: “holy, holy God”. We say, hugging God: Our Father thy Kingdom come (that means: through us); thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (that means: by us). This dream of God we call it in theology “the plan of salvation”, or the “economy of salvation”. God has no body, He is a Spirit. We are the body of God. The dream of God cannot be implemented without us. God entrusted to our care the building of his Kingdom.
Tomorrow is the “Labor day”. Congratulations to all the workers. All of you are workers. Jesus, St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary were too workers. All of you work to have a decent life, to build a new house, a good family. Do we care to build the Kingdom of God as we care to build our material houses? Do we take care of God’s vineyard as he took care of us? Are we growing in Christian stature? Are we more forgiving than we were in the past? Are we giving more to the Lord’s work in our Churches? Do we attend services more often than in the past? Are we more concerned about other people than we used to be? Listen to what St. Paul says about the fruits of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:23-24). What are the fruits we are bearing in our families, in the society and in the Church? Are we spreading love or hatred? Are we peacemakers or trouble makers? Are we patient, kind, faithful, gentle with each others or always fighting each other?
Let us remember always in every thing we do that we are responsible of the creation of God. Let us live up to this responsibility.
I conclude with the traditional blessing of the bishop in our Byzantine liturgy: “Lord, Lord, look down from heaven and see. Bless this vineyard which your right hand has planted”; help them to be faithful workers in your Church to build your Kingdom. Amen.